Tag Archives: Real Humans

Synth-ly the best: Translating Humans from Swedish to English

Jonathan Brackley and Sam Vincent tell Michael Pickard how they transformed a Swedish sci-fi thriller into Channel 4’s biggest original drama for 20 years.

From spies to Synths, Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley can now be considered among the top writing talents in the UK after building a career across television and film.

Jonathan Brackley (left) and Sam Vincent
Jonathan Brackley (left) and Sam Vincent have also worked on Spooks

Best known for running BBC1 spy drama Spooks for its final two seasons, they also brought the series to the big screen earlier this year in Spooks: The Greater Good.

For their latest project, the longtime collaborators are behind Humans, an eight-part sci-fi thriller that has become Channel 4’s biggest original drama in more than 20 years.

Based on the Swedish series Real Humans (aka Äkta människor), it is set in a parallel present where the latest must-have gadget for a busy family is a Synth – a life-like humanoid.

Featuring a cast including William Hurt, Katherine Parkinson, Gemma Chan, Colin Morgan, Emily Berrington and Neil Maskell, the debut episode drew a consolidated audience of 6.1 million viewers.

The drama represented an interesting challenge for Vincent and Brackley, who were brought on board by Kudos (Spooks, Broadchurch) to pen the series after the producer won a battle for the format rights. US cable network AMC later joined the series as a coproduction partner, with the show debuting stateside two weeks after its UK launch on June 14.

Brackley says: “We’ve worked with Kudos for the last couple of years, doing the last two seasons of Spooks and the Spooks movie. We got a call from (former Kudos CEO) Jane Featherstone, who said they’d just won a rights battle to this Swedish series about robots and wanted to know if we’d be interested. So we said yes.

Humans stars Gemma Chan as a 'Synth' called Anita
Humans stars Gemma Chan as a ‘Synth’ called Anita

“They gave us the first season to watch and we loved it. It’s so full of fascinating, interesting ideas, and approached in such a genuinely new way that we really wanted to have a go at bringing our own take to the show.”

In particular, Vincent says it was the drama’s unconventional take on artificial intelligence and how this could be placed at the heart of a family drama that attracted the pair to the series.

“Putting it right in the heart of the home was really fresh,” he says. “Usually these stories would be about the origins of the technology or a dark conspiracy surrounding its use, but this was about one ordinary family and how the strains and stresses that are already present open up into chasms by the arrival of this machine. That was the real creative coup of the original concept.”

Vincent and Brackley watched the first season of Real Humans twice, and then pushed it aside, fearful of relying too much on the source material and simply translating the original series, rather than putting their own stamp on its themes.

“If you compare the first episodes of the original with ours, you’ll see a lot of similarities,” explains Vincent. “You’ll see scenes that are the same and the key characters, but as we developed the story, it very organically grew into its own thing and you move further and further away (from the original) as the series progresses, so by the season end you’re in a very different space. It was all fairly organic and natural.”

The writing pair had not adapted a foreign-language drama before, but compared the process to joining Spooks after it had already been on air for eight seasons – taking over an established set of characters and taking them in a new direction, while retaining the show’s original spirit and tone.

That’s not to say they dispensed with Real Humans altogether, however. Brackley says: “There are individual moments that we really liked from the original that we kept, but in broader terms the narrative goes in a completely different direction by the end of the season. And if we’re lucky enough to get a second season, we’ll be carrying on from the end of ours.”

A second season is yet to be confirmed, but the ratings success of the first season suggest it’s more a matter of when than if. And it’s that success that Vincent and Brackley believe justifies the decision to remake Real Humans in the first place.

“We always knew there would be a few people saying ‘why remake this?’ but it’s not really an argument we have much sympathy for, because you only do it if you feel it’s creatively worthwhile,” says Vincent. “You feel you’re changing it for a different audience, growing it, developing it. We felt we were in conversation with the original and could do things in a slightly different way and build on certain aspects. There’s certainly room for both.”

Brackley adds: “There’s always a place for remakes as long as it’s doing something different, if it’s not just retreading the same territory in the same way then there’s always a place for an adaptation or translation into another country or another format.”

Having previously adapted another Scandinavian drama, the worldwide smash hit The Killing (aka Forbrydelsen), AMC was a natural US partner for Channel 4. Vincent admits he and Brackley were slightly overwhelmed at the prospect of working with the network, which counts Mad Men and The Walking Dead among its biggest hits, but says AMC were “incredibly supportive” and were fans of the show’s UK identity – ruling out fears that the show might suddenly be transplanted to a US location.

The series has become Channel 4's biggest original drama in more than 20 years
The series has become Channel 4’s biggest original drama in more than 20 years

“The only concession we made for the American market was that we removed ‘milk float,’” he reveals. “We weren’t even told to do that, people just kept asking us what milk float meant.”

As for the key to making a successful remake, Vincent says writers have to steep any adaptation in cultural relevance: “Real Humans has a great universal concept but a lot of it is quite culturally specific. We wanted to turn the lens of the concept onto an English-speaking culture and Britain today, and that produced a lot of subtle and interesting effects and differences.

“You have to ask whether it’s truly worthwhile – are you just reheating something, or are you actually refreshing it, reinvigorating it, changing it for a different audience and bringing a lot of yourself to it? If you’re not, you really have no business doing it. It would be madness trying to adapt something you weren’t passionate about in the first place. If you’re as passionate about the source material as we were about Real Humans, then it can be a really fantastic process.”

Before putting pen to paper, however, Brackley and Vincent both met with the show’s original creator, Lars Lundström, to discuss the series and how they might adapt it for a new audience.

Lundström says the idea of blurring lines between humans and robots was something he’d been working on for several years, and had pitched to a few producers before it was picked up by Swedish pubcaster SVT. Real Humans first aired in 2012, running for two seasons.

“I have no idea where the idea for it came from, it just popped up in my head,” he says. “SVT were willing to take a chance on it because they saw it not as sci-fi but more as a drama or thriller.”

Of his meeting with Brackley and Vincent, Lundström says: “We spoke about the DNA of the show, but the storyline is up to them. We were speaking about what I thought was the bottom line of the show, and it was very fruitful. They’re two very intelligent writers so they picked it up and shaped it nicely.

“One thing to be clear about is the hu-bots (as Synths are called in the Swedish version) are neither bad nor good. They’re just something humans have created, so it’s not like other AI shows where they are purely bad and we have to destroy them. That makes it a bit more complex and complicated than other similar shows, and that was very important for me. It’s a show that explores interaction with technology and what it means to be human. It’s not really about robots; it’s about humans.

“I had full confidence in them and I knew they would do something great with it. When I read the first couple of scripts, I was just happy. It’s fun that it gets a new life in the English language.”

Lundström – who is now working on new “mystical thriller” 1001 for Gaumont International Television, Matador Film and Eyeworks Scandi Fiction – has written a storyline and some scripts for a third season, but says these are now unlikely to come to air.

Instead, he hopes Humans will pave the way for more series to be adapted across borders. “I hope broadcasters will dare more with their shows,” he adds. “Sci-fi is hard because it usually doesn’t hit big numbers, but now we’ve proved it can. In the US they have done lots of shows like The Walking Dead that prove genre can be big and broad.”

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The new black: Nordic noir’s unstoppable rise

As the popularity of Nordic noir shows no sign of waning, DQ asks Scandinavian drama’s key players where they plan to take the genre next.

Ever since the massive global hit that was The Killing, Scandinavian drama has been punching above its weight, winning over critics and viewers internationally as well as influencing its European neighbours.

The latest Nordic noir success story is Sweden’s The Fat and the Angry (Ettor och nollor), which scooped another international award for the region when it picked up best non-English-language drama at the inaugural C21 Drama Awards last November. It came a close second earlier in the year at the Seoul Drama Awards with a Silver Bird gong in the TV movies category.

Wikander: 'We’re approached by broadcasters and international producers in a way we’ve never seen before'
Wikander: ‘We’re approached by broadcasters and international producers in a way we’ve never seen before’

Based on true events in Gothenburg’s criminal underworld, the two-part show, which premiered locally in Sweden in February 2014, joins a long list of award-winning Nordic dramas with international careers, including Lilyhammer, The Killing, Wallander, Borgen and The Bridge – as well as Mammon, which has been the subject of speculation about a BBC remake.

The Fat and the Angry highlights an important feature of Scandinavian dramas: coproduction. Made by Göta Film and Swedish pubcaster SVT, its partners included Finnish pubcaster YLE and Swedish film prodco Film i Väst.

With a few exceptions, Scandinavian drama’s international partnerships came out of necessity, says SVT head of drama Christian Wikander. “The hourly cost for drama has gone up, which means we’re all searching for new money, and this drove the producers and the broadcasters to reach out and broaden the network.”

If anyone can find success with this approach, it’s the Scandinavians, as Liselott Forsman, executive producer of international drama projects at YLE, explains: “We’ve been coproducing since 1959. It’s really good for Nordic drama that we have subsidy methods and two important funds within the Nordic countries.” One of these is the Nordisk Film and TV Fond, where Forsman sits on the board.

“There’s much to be gained by having a lot of smaller funding and regional funding contributions, even though they don’t pay very much,” agrees Stefan Baron, executive drama producer at Nice Drama. Baron left SVT in 2014 after 21 years to join MTG-owned Nice Entertainment Group, where he’s now an exec producer heading up international coproductions. “The trick is to not have too many partners at the script stage,” he says. “When you have a couple of scripts, then you bring in distributors and coproducers from around the world.”

Beyond the region, Nordic drama’s international appeal has grown thanks to increasingly sophisticated, social media-savvy audiences and their expanding tastes, says Wikander – adding that this has also helped prise open the door to the UK, a notoriously closed market for subtitled, non-Anglo Saxon fare.

“I think audiences are very well educated and used to all kinds of storylines, plots, dramaturgy and also language,” says the SVT man. “Because social media is so borderless, we share so much in our personal networks – and one proof of that is the success of Nordic drama on BBC4. Ten years ago, if someone had told me two million Brits would sit down to watch a subtitled drama, I wouldn’t have believed them.

“The fantastic upside for all of us working in Scandinavia today is that we’re approached by broadcasters and international producers in a way we’ve never seen before, and that’s a great opportunity for us.”

SVT is Scandinavia’s largest drama commissioner and producer, with an annual output of four longform drama series (10×60’/10×45’) and four miniseries (3×60’) across crime, family drama and comedy, on a budget of around SEK320m (US$46.6m).

Around half its output is coproduced, largely with its longstanding Nordic partners such as DR, NRK and YLE. But it has also attracted a growing band of Europeans and North Americans interested in remake rights to shows like The Bridge, and ‘hubot’ drama Real Humans, with Shine-owned Kudos’s remake of the latter, simply called Humans, now airing on the UK’s Channel 4 and AMC in the US.

Gustaffson: Bigger appetite for Nordic  drama has caused a bottleneck
Gustaffson: Bigger appetite for Nordic drama has ’caused a bottleneck’

Piodor Gustaffson, co-founder and producer of independent production company Another Park Film, and former drama commissioning editor at SVT, says that despite smaller budgets and limited development funds in the region, he’s noticed an overall increase in the quality of drama series over the last few years. “That’s about competing with not only the rest of the world but also your neighbours, as well as occasionally using the same talent,” he says.

At SVT, Gustaffson pushed for a broader range of drama output, leading to projects such as The Bridge and Real Humans. Meanwhile, Baron greenlit Nice’s family drama Thicker Than Water. The show aired in spring 2014 to a million-plus viewers, selling internationally via Germany’s ZDFE. A second season is now in the pipeline.

There’s widespread agreement that Nordic noir has opened doors for Scandinavian producers, themselves refusing to have their output pigeonholed as simply Nordic noir. With crime at its core, the programming stretches far beyond into an exploration of society and human motivations, offering a strong identification with and empathy for characters along the way. It also embraces other genres such as suspense and mystery, and fish-out-of-water crime comedy. And now producers are moving into new areas, exemplified by DR’s family inheritance drama The Legacy.

“Of course it’s about crime – it’s Nordic noir – but it’s always been character-focused,” says Jonas Allen, producer and co-founder of Danish prodco Miso Film. “We care about the characters. It’s not only about fascination with them, but also identifying with the characters, and I think that’s the basic core to all the shows.”

Now majority-owned by FremantleMedia, Miso Film counts local hits such as Those Who Kill and Dicte for TV2 Denmark, as well as the historical drama 1864 for DR, among its productions. Crime reporter series Dicte (10×45’) returned for a successful second run last autumn, with a third season now in development. It includes TV4 Sweden and TV2 Norway as coproducers, and received support from regional Danish regional funds, the EU’s MEDIA programme and DFI’s Public Service Fund.

Forsman: 'It’s our duty to tell all our audiences something about what’s happening in society today'
Forsman: ‘It’s our duty to tell all our audiences something about what’s happening in society today’

For Scandinavia’s public broadcasters, at least, another quintessential ingredient of Nordic drama is how it reflects society. “It’s our duty to tell all our audiences something about what’s happening in society today. It’s imperative that we entertain, but we should always enrich at a deeper level, too,” says Forsman.

Even though Nordic drama appears gloomy and dark, Forsman says one of the reasons Danish drama travels so well is that the characters care about each other. “You can feel it within 10 seconds of watching. You have to have a lot of empathy, no matter how harsh the subject.”

YLE Drama’s latest show is the thriller Tellus, scripted and directed by JP Siili. The 6×50’ drama deals with a group of eco-terrorists, exploring an “important ethical question” of how far individuals will go to fight for their ideals, according to Forsman.

NRK and SVT are coproducers and ZDFE is distributing it internationally outside of Scandinavia, making it “a typical Nordic coproduction,” Forsman adds. The drama opened to 27% shares on YLE1 in the autumn, continuing on 25%, with a second season greenlit before the final episode aired in December.

Pubcaster NRK’s latest traditional Nordic noir, Eyewitness (Øyenvitne, pictured top), which debuted on NRK1 last autumn, is also imbued with socio-cultural commentary. “It’s been a real success among critics and audiences,” says NRK head of drama Ivar Køhn, who’s also the current chair of the Nordisk Film and TV Fund.

It was scripted and directed by Jarl Emsell Larsen who, as the original father of Nordic noir in Norway, has 30 years of TV drama under his belt. “For the last 15 years he’s been really into social drama, when he discovered he could make crime and talk about society and also make it popular,” Køhn says of the director.

Eyewitness follows two adolescent boys who meet secretly in a forest, where they witness a violent murder. The story follows the events that build after they fail to report the crime to the police. It has already sold internationally in both finished (including to Germany) and scripted format forms.

Struggle for Life, 'the opposite of a fish-out-of-water story'
Struggle for Life, ‘the opposite of a fish-out-of-water story’

But NRK is also keen to evolve its drama. Its ‘Nordic humour noir’ show Struggle for Life (Kampen for tilværelsen) “is not so much a ‘fish out of water’ story as a ‘tigers in silent waters’ one – the complete opposite,” says Køhn.

Following in the mould of series like Welcome to Sweden and Lilyhammer, Struggle for Life centres on a Pole who travels to Norway in search of his father. Although a linguist, he can only find work as a carpenter, which exposes him to a Norwegian middle-class life of self-made problems.

“It’s a really original story and a brave one for us,” says Køhn. The project was completely controlled by scriptwriters, and co-written by Erlend Loe, Per Schreiner and Bjørn Olaf Johannessen – “some of the most exciting writers we have in Norway,” says Køhn. NRK has greenlit two seasons of the eight-part comedy drama.

Miso Film is also evolving the Nordic noir genre. “It’s one of the things going on right now,” says co-founder Allen. “A lot of creatives who we’re dealing with are looking for and trying to tell new stories.”

One of its latest offerings is NOK65m (US$8.8m)-budget mystery drama Acquitted (Frikjent) (10×45’), made for TV2 Norway and launched in March this year. The project, which received NOK10m funding from the Nordisk Film and TV Fund, became TV2’s biggest drama premiere, pulling in a 46.6% share of its 20-49s target group and a 38.8% overall share (12 years-plus).

Scripted by two female writers, Siv Rajendram Eliassen (Varg Veum) and Anna Bache-Wiig, the drama is inspired by a real rape and murder case in Norway. “They were very interested in the character, and it was always about finding out about the man who was acquitted, why he came back to his hometown, what he was looking for, and the forces that drove him back. That’s the core of the development of the show,” says Allen.

SVT’s Wikander, too, is keen for producers not to come to him with the next The Bridge. “I think we need to be brave. Take Real Humans, for instance – that’s an example of being brave, and for a public broadcaster today that’s extremely important,” he says.

C21 Drama Award-winning The Fat and the Angry
C21 Drama Award-winning The Fat and the Angry

“We need to try out new stuff but, of course, without abandoning the established crime formats. We’re going to see a third and probably fourth season of The Bridge, but we need to balance that with bravery, and we’ve started a lot from scratch, finding stories relevant to a Swedish audience because that’s our mission. When you have that mission, you can then go into the international market, but not as a first step.”

One of SVT’s newest dramas, Jordskott (10×60’), takes the pubcaster in yet another new direction. It’s made by established Swedish commercials prodco Palladium, which formed new division Palladium Fiction, headed by producer Filip Hammarström, for its first TV drama. The show, which launched on Monday February 16, opened to 1.6 million viewers and has since averaged 1.4 million so far across its debut run.

The story follows a detective who returns to her small home town to work on the case of a missing boy, 10 years after her own daughter disappeared, and tries to find links between the two mysterious incidents. Wikander calls it a “Nordic crime meets mystery” drama.

After four years developing the idea, Palladium brought a 10-minute tape to SVT. “If they hadn’t had that 10 minutes, we would have said no, because the company had never produced a drama series before,” says Wikander.

The UK’s ITV Studios came in on the project very early, he adds, making it possible to take it to the next level of production, and is distributing the series worldwide. Finland’s Kinoproduktion is also a coproducer and the series has been pre-bought by YLE, TV2 Norway and Iceland’s RUV.

“The biggest difference of the last two to three years has been an increase in the amount spent on development, alongside international companies investing in or acquiring Nordic companies and increased budgets at the TV channels. More projects are now very well developed even before they reach the commissioning editors,” notes Another Park’s Gustaffson.

SVT has upped its development budget to help develop more new projects, a challenge many countries without the US-style showrunner/writers room approach face. “The best writers are occupied so we also need to focus also on the writers beneath them and on finding ways to get them together with producers to lift them,” Wikander explains.

Another Park is currently busy developing a number of (as yet undisclosed) film and TV projects across a range of genres, working with top writing talent. “We will go out to the market when we’re ready,” Gustaffson says. “We wanted to have that freedom when we created the company. But, obviously, we would also be open to start earlier with some partners if we shared the same vision at the development stage.”

However, Gustaffson says a key challenge for Nordic drama is the “limit to how much Swedish-language drama the local market can finance and consume.”

He adds: “There’s a bigger appetite for Nordic and Swedish drama than what TV stations commission, and that’s caused a bottleneck. A lot of interesting projects will come out of the increase in development money but this won’t result in more Swedish-language drama series – and it could mean some of the top talent start to write for companies in other countries because what they develop here won’t be financed.”

Yet Scandinavian producers remain unfazed by growing international competition in foreign-language drama from countries such as France, Spain, Israel and Turkey. Rather, they see greater potential synergies developing.

NRK is no stranger to global partnerships. It was the first Scandinavian broadcaster to strike out when it joined forces with new entrant Netflix to coproduce the crime comedy series Lilyhammer by Rubicon TV, which premiered in early 2012. Season three of the drama returned on flagship NRK1 last October, with the broadcaster this time taking a leaf out of Netflix’s book by also making the entire series available straight away on its online streaming service. Meanwhile, HBO Europe picked up remake rights to NRK’s six-part thriller Mammon.

“We were all taken and shaken by Netflix and House of Cards, when the whole series was made available on day one, while Netflix rose extremely quickly to around 650,000 subscribers in Sweden,” says Wikander. “But that has now levelled out, and one of the reasons for that – not unique to Netflix – is that 98% of its catalogue is old titles. The audience has now gone through it, and an output of four new titles a year, whether you’re a broadcaster like us or a Netflix, is too little to keep a subscriber audience with you.”

There’s another reason why distribution platforms like Netflix and HBO make interesting bedfellows: they can do niche drama, because ultimately they can aggregate lots of smaller audiences, says YLE’s Forsman. “In other countries where we have really strong public service companies with good audience shares and very well-educated audiences, we can do that too,” she notes.

“It’s really great to see channels like France’s Canal+ doing the same,” adds Forsman. “They want their drama to have deep characters and to speak about society in a new way, to be brave, risky and so on – all imperatives for public service broadcasters. We could have written the same words, yet they’re a commercial broadcaster.”

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