Tag Archives: Simon Mirren

Trade secrets

There’s no exact science to creating a hit drama, but there are certainly plenty of things you can do to improve your odds. DQ hears from some of the best in the business.

As the old world of TV transitions to the new, the rules around what constitutes a hit have clearly changed.

Take Fox’s Empire as an example. The series, which made its debut only last year and has already been renewed for a third season, is an undeniable ‘hit’ in the traditional sense. However, for all that Fox may trumpet the show’s record-breaking viewing figures, overnight ratings are increasingly looking like a dying barometer of success in the age of video-on-demand.

“Everybody is holding on to the Bronze Age of television in America, so everybody wants to claim their show is a hit. But there isn’t a monitoring system yet that can say whether something is a hit,” says Simon Mirren, one of the UK’s most successful executive producers and writers.

“Amazon or Netflix can say one of their shows is a hit, but you don’t know if it really is because you don’t know how many people are watching it,” says Mirren, who recently oversaw the glossy period drama Versailles for Canal+ in France.

Of course, Netflix and Amazon’s tight lips have ensured their dramas aren’t burdened by talk of ratings. But with that has come perhaps an even bigger pressure for them to push their series into public conversation, lest they wallow unwatched in the streamers’ libraries.

The increasing irrelevance of overnights has meant producers, creators and showrunners are having to rely on other evidence to conclude whether they’ve created a hit, both in the real world and online.

Versailles
Simon Mirren has creator, writer and executive producer credits on Canal+ drama Versailles

“When I’m walking around and people tap on my shoulder and say that the show is great, then I can feel it,” says veteran television producer Peter Nadermann, a former exec at German public broadcaster ZDF who is famous for bringing Scandinavian coproductions The Killing and The Bridge to wider audiences.

Of course, every time a producer picks up a new script, it’s in the hope they might be about to read the next Downton Abbey or Breaking Bad. But the reality is that, in the overwhelming majority of cases, they won’t. “As a producer, we’re shepherding 15 projects that could all be hits. So you live in this slightly naive world where they might all be successful but really you know they won’t, as a hit is so rare,” says Justin Thomson-Glover, founding director of UK coproduction specialist Far Moor Media.

But, in exceptional circumstances, the script might be so good that producers can afford to feel pretty confident. In the case of BBC detective series The Fall (pictured top), which Thomson-Glover executive produced and subsequently saw get picked up around the world the signs were there from the beginning.

“When the script for The Fall came in and the female script editors reading it were too scared to walk home and had to get cabs, you knew there was something special about it,” he says.

The producer’s suspicions were confirmed after the first episode aired on BBC2 in May 2013, when the series’ male lead Jamie Dornan, then a relatively unknown Northern Irish actor, became an overnight star. “There was such a huge amount of tweeting and such momentum that you knew it would carry on in the UK and go international,” Thomson-Glover recalls.

Justin Thomson-Glover
Justin Thomson-Glover

But Dornan was only cast at the insistence of show creator Allan Cubitt, who had to go out on a limb to make sure he got his man. This highlights the importance of putting trust in your creators, Thomson-Glover says.

Mirren says there are other reasons producers can feel quietly assured in the early stages that all the hard work will result in something bigger than the sum of its parts. “I don’t want say this with arrogance, but I’ve worked with some good people and on a number of hit shows. When I was on Criminal Minds, there was a feeling that it might be a hit,” reveals the showrunner, who worked on the crime drama for six years.

Although Mirren dismisses the notion that you can reverse-engineer a hit in any way, he insists your chances will greatly improve if you have the right people around you.

As a showrunner on Criminal Minds, writing a decent episode was only the start of the battle, remembers the former plasterer, who compares overseeing a series to being part of a highly dysfunctional family.

“You’re dealing with the outline, treatment, a first draft, a second draft, a problem with the network, an actor who doesn’t like his trailer, someone’s punched somebody, someone’s lost their thumb…” he says. “I’ve got a hundred horror stories. That’s the point when you find out if you’ve got the mettle to bring this train into the right station, because it is a train.

“The best you can be is determined by the people you have around you. So you have to find a great first director and people around you who can help you get through everything, because there’s so much to deal with.”

Having arrived on the CBS series after the departure of creator Jeff Davis and with a stint producing the Eye Network’s Without a Trace under his belt, Mirren applied his experience of using a formula to the fledgling crime drama.

Criminal Minds
Simon Mirren says coming up with a ‘show bible’ was important for Criminal Minds

“We were sitting there without a bible, no anything. So I said we’ve just got to come up with a formula that the other writers can stick their jacket onto,” Mirren remembers.

Out of that came Criminal Minds’ episode structure, which begins with someone meeting a grisly end, followed by the investigation unit coming in, someone else being targeted, red herrings being added here and there, and so on.

As someone who has an overall deal with a US studio (Universal), Mirren is well aware he might have to join a show that he doesn’t actually like, although he stresses this hasn’t yet been the case.

For Nadermann, who spent 13 years at ZDF before setting up NADCON with Constantin Film, one of Germany’s best-known production companies, being able to pick his projects is paramount: “I have this weakness that means I strictly only do what I personally like.”

Trusting his gut is key, so Nadermann takes a very simple approach to what he thinks will get a response from viewers: “I’m not atypical. The things I like, such as football and Netflix, other people like too. So if I like it, other people probably will as well. I have a very close relationship with certain TV executives who believe in my work and give me a certain freedom. I’ve chosen to work very internationally, because it gives me much more freedom.”

Nadermann isn’t joking when he says he has a taste for the international. His latest copro, The Team, was made with the participation of eight different public broadcasters across Europe.

Some would immediately label a project with that many different partners on board, all likely pitching in with different ideas, as a sure-fire ‘Europudding,’ which unfortunately is not as tasty as it sounds. But Nadermann used his experience to try to ensure the project was as uncomplicated editorially as possible, despite the number of different partners. The executive producer told each party it would not be possible to do a show with eight channels interfering and emphasised that he needed their trust to make the series a success.

The Team
The way The Team was released played an important part in its success, according to Peter Nadermann

The Team portrays a group of European police officers fighting international crime throughout Europe, and thus naturally features multiple languages, including French, Danish, German and English. Nadermann believes that, rather than act as a deterrent to the audience, this helped attract attention to the series in Germany.

“Programmes have to have an aura about them so that the audience gets a sense of a special energy. The industry is constantly underestimating viewers and I try not to do that. With The Team, there were a lot of things that were new, and people like that,” he says.

Another important factor in The Team’s local success, says the exec, was the way it was distributed, with every episode arriving on ZDF’s on-demand service prior to its linear broadcast, à la Netflix: “We added a lot of younger viewers who would not have seen it on ZDF. It was the first time the audience realised ZDF is like a Netflix for free. It will be crucial for all TV stations to develop their online platforms because in the future you will have a modern viewer who wants both.”

There’s also an element of serendipity in whether a show goes on to become a hit. Nadermann points to the forthcoming Havana Quartet (working title) series he has in development with US cable channel Starz based on Leonardo Padura’s Havana detective novels, a project that may have been aided by President Obama’s efforts to improve relations between the States and Cuba.

“I bought the rights to books by a Cuban crime writer as I was convinced that a crime series in Havana would be very interesting,” says Nadermann, describing it as “Wallander in the sun.”

He continues: “Then you have to sell it and find people who believe in your vision. It’s not all in the writing. It’s everything together, the talent, directors and cast. Then you need a little luck, which in this case was the Americans being interested in Cuba.”

Indian Summers
Anand Tucker directed the opening episodes of Channel 4’s Indian Summers, pictured

For a director, there really is no other option but to trust gut instinct. “You never know,” says Anand Tucker, who launched London-based drama company Seven Stories alongside Jo McClellan, Sharon Maguire and Colleen Woodcock last year.

Tucker and Maguire’s credits include Hilary & Jackie, Shopgirl, Girl with a Pearl Earring, Bridget Jones’s Diary and Red Riding 1983, while Tucker directed the opening episodes of last year’s first season of Channel 4 series Indian Summers.

“It begins the moment you read the script – you have to trust your voice,” Tucker says. “This has been my lesson. It doesn’t matter what you’re making, whether it’s a five-minute short or a commercial. If there’s one thing that doesn’t feel right and you ignore that voice, it’ll come back and it’ll fuck you so badly. You have to trust that.”

Indeed, it’s easier to list the don’ts than the do’s when it comes to trying to create a successful scripted series. “It’s a bit like marriage. If you marry the wrong wife, you can work hard on it, but it will never be a great relationship. It’s the same if you pick the wrong writer,” says Nadermann.

But although writer and producer may come first, the director should not be forgotten, says Tucker, who has fallen foul of over-zealous producers in the past. “At some point, you have to have the confidence and courage to trust the director. In my experience, the problems have always come when producers try to hold on to the bar of soap too hard.”

Peter Nadermann
Peter Nadermann

But imagine everything goes swimmingly, with the right talent both on and off screen and a first season that ticks all the boxes. How do you sustain that kind of success? That could be the hardest nut to crack of all.

Take HBO’s True Detective, which saw a substantial decline in both critical and audience response for its second season compared with its universally acclaimed first. Various reasons have been offered for its underwhelming sophomore run, from the change in cast to it being rushed to screen. But both Mirren and Nadermann agree the series suffered as a result of the writer, Nic Pizzolatto, being given too much freedom.

“There have been times where I’ve watched shows and thought the writer has too much power, that he’s fallen in love with his own ego and everybody is too frightened to stop him,” says Mirren.

Nadermann, meanwhile, believes the importance of director Cary Fukunaga, who oversaw all eight episodes of True Detective’s first season but played no part in the second, was “underestimated.”

“Every project is different. You can have extraordinary writing, but then you change director,” he adds. “Then you have other shows where you have miscast and it doesn’t work. There are always different doors you have to watch.”

Clearly, there’s an intricate dance that must be performed by all players involved in getting a scripted series to screen. And only when they are dancing in time can they properly avoid those trap doors.

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Writers go global

Hans Rosenfeld
Hans Rosenfeld is currently writing Marcella

At timing of writing this column, the C21 Drama Summit is taking place at the British Film Institute in London. In among the numerous producers, broadcasters and distributors attending the event, there has also been a star-studded line-up of screenwriters.

In no particular order, the summit attracted the likes of Stephen Poliakoff, Frank Spotnitz, Harlan Coben, Tony Jordan, Sarah Phelps, Paula Milne, Anna Winger, David Farr, Hans Rosenfeld, James Dormer, Charlie Higson, Simon Mirren, Clive Bradley and Chip Johannessen.

What’s interesting about these scribes is the unusual and idiosyncratic journeys that many of them are currently embarked upon. Rosenfeld, for example, is one of the main architects of acclaimed Scandinavian series The Bridge. But now he is writing an English-language crime series set in London, called Marcella. Winger, meanwhile, is an American who lives in Germany with her husband Joerg. Between them they created the well-reviewed period spy drama Deutschland 83, currently airing in Germany on RTL and around the world.

If it seems odd that an American co-wrote D83, then consider that British writer Paula Milne (The Politician’s Wife) has just done something similar, delivering The Same Sky to ZDF in Germany. In this case, she wrote scripts in English that were then translated into German by director Oliver Hirschbiegel. Clive Bradley, meanwhile, is an English screenwriter who has just finished working as the co-writer on Trapped, a pan-European coproduction set in snowy Iceland.

Deutschland 83
Deutschland 83, created by married team Joerg and Anna Winger

Harlan Coben, a novelist, has just written his first TV drama, The Five, in collaboration with Danny Brocklehurst (Shameless, Clocking Off). Farr, meanwhile, is a playwright adapting a John Le Carre novel The Night Manager for TV. In one of his anecdotes at the Summit, Farr talked of meeting Le Carre in a north London pub and having to pluck up the courage to tell the great man the last 100 pages of his novel wouldn’t work on TV. Sarah Phelps must have felt just as nervous when she met Hilary Strong of Agatha Christie Ltd to discuss how she would go about adapting Christie’s classic novel And Then There Were None.

Poliakoff’s session was enlightening, providing an insight into the way he has honed his skills as a writer-director. While many would think of him first and foremost as a playwright and screenwriter, Poliakoff spent much of his session discussing the directorial dimension of his latest project Close to the Enemy. Casting, rigorous rehearsals and location selection were as significant to the realisation of Poliakoff’s vision of the series as story and dialogue.

Stephen Polliakoff
Stephen Polliakoff is working on Close to the Enemy

Frank Spotnitz, an American residing in Europe, was at the summit to discuss his latest project for Amazon, The Man in the High Castle, while Chip Johannessen provided insight into the adaptation of Israeli show Prisoners of War into his hit series Homeland. Simon Mirren was in town to talk about the creation of Versailles, the English-language, French production of a quintessentially French subject. That seems a long way from where his career started – as a writer on Casualty.

So what does all the above tell us? Well, it shows that the idea of the writer as a solitary creature is something of a myth. While part of the job inevitably involves shutting the study door and blocking out distractions, just as much is dependent on a willingness and ability to interact with other parts of the production chain.

At the same time, the shift towards international coproduction (in order to realise ambitious creative ideas) means writers have to be surefooted on the international stage. It’s noteworthy just how many of the above scribes have had to collaborate across borders or set scenes abroad. Milne talked about watching rushes of The Same Sky after her words had been translated in German, and having to make a judgement on whether the emotional impact of the dialogue had survived the shift to a new language. Rosenfeld, meanwhile, discussed the support he needed to ensure Marcella’s London life was authentic.

Chip Johannssen
Chip Johannssen turned Prisoners of War into Homeland for Showtime

Another theme throughout the summit has been the way the current era of ambitious international drama production allows writers to cut loose creatively. Farr talked about how writers used to be scared to set a scene outside – let alone in a foreign country. But this concern has been blown away as dramas head for increasingly exotic climes.

This freedom is also evident in the range of literary reimaginings currently on show. Charlie Higson’s interpretation of Jekyll and Hyde (in which he injects his own mythology), Tony Jordan’s literary mash-up Dickensian and James Dormer’s reworking of the Beowulf saga are all examples of how traditional budgeting and commissioning constraints have fallen away.

Of course, a key implication of the above is that writers need to be trusted to deliver against bold objectives. And this is creating a challenge for the scripted business. Understandably, the broadcasters and distributors that put up millions of dollars to make drama projects a reality are anxious to ensure they work with proven writers. This is causing a logjam, with the best writers often booked up for years to come.

While this is good news for those writers who are in demand, the clear message is that the industry needs to improve the flow of new writing talent coming through. C21 and Red Planet are both playing their part with scriptwriting competitions, but there needs to be a more formal solution to this issue if the drama business is to keep up its extraordinary creative momentum.

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Drama fit for a king

Costing US$30m to make and promising to push the boundaries of TV drama, Versailles is one of the most hotly anticipated period pieces in recent memory. DQ goes behind the scenes as the Louis XIV epic wraps its debut season.

Five years in the making, one of Europe’s most expensive and daring new dramas is about to be unleashed by France. Aptly, it’s called Versailles.

But despite its royal heritage, this is no regular French drama production. The €27m (US$29.7m) series – commissioned by French pay TV broadcaster Canal+ under its Création Originale drama strategy – surprises in more ways than one.

Jalil Lespert directs George Blagden's Louis XIV. All Versailles images © Tibo et Anouchka/Capa Drama/Zodiak Fiction/Incendo/Canal+
Jalil Lespert directs George Blagden’s Louis XIV. All Versailles images © Tibo et Anouchka/Capa Drama/Zodiak Fiction/Incendo/Canal+

The 80% French-funded series is created and scripted by British duo Simon Mirren (Without a Trace, Criminal Minds) and David Wolstencroft (Spooks, The Escape Artist). They weren’t the project’s first showrunners. After a few false starts, and following the departure of André and Maria Jacquemetton (Mad Men), Mirren and Wolstencroft joined two years ago via Anne Thomopoulos (Band of Brothers, Rome, Borgia, Black Box), who is exec producing the drama together with Claude Chelli (Braquo) of Newen-owned Capa Drama.

Canal+ greenlit the show in January 2014, before French coproducer Zodiak France funded a writers room in LA and production finally began last August, with filming wrapping in early March this year.

As it turns out, Mirren and Wolstencroft were destined for the part. Wolstencroft says he got the call from Mirren as he left a butcher’s in Brooklyn. “Simon phoned me and said, ‘Mate, do you know anything about Louis XIV and Versailles?’ ‘Well, I did study him at Cambridge and he is my specialist subject,’ I replied.”

Wolstencroft was tutored by historian Peter Burke, a Louis XIV expert who shared the research for his books on the monarch with his Cambridge students. He recalls: “At college I remember thinking this would be a brilliant movie but that it would never happen.”

While it’s nothing new for French productions to be scripted and shot in English, it’s certainly a bold step when the subject in question is so quintessentially French. Versailles will be dubbed into French, with Canal+ viewers given the choice of either language when the series launches this fall. But the approach has raised French eyebrows, with its English-speaking Louis XIV, played by British actor George Blagden (Vikings), in particular, proving controversial.

Simon Mirren
Simon Mirren

Making the show in English was a “very buccaneer, brave thing to do,” says Wolstencroft. “It’s clearly important in terms of its historical veracity to have a French version, but to film in English is bold and wonderful. Three billion people in the world speak English, so let’s take this story to the maximum audience, like the Americans do. The whole point is that the story exists on its own terms – it’s English-language, international entertainment.”

Chelli is similarly dismissive of the concerns: “Louis is married to a Spanish woman, his brother’s wife is English and his mother is a quarter Italian, so it’s not really just a French story but a European one.”

It was Chelli who first pitched the idea to Canal+ five years ago, after a visit to the Palace of Versailles’ central Hall of Mirrors left him wondering why no one had made a drama about France’s longest-serving monarch. “The guy’s incredible; he invented everything from architecture to fashion, music, ballet, haute cuisine – the lot,” Chelli says of Louis XIV. “It’s a long story, but here we are five years later with great showrunners and great stories.”

Canal+ is very clear about why it backed the production. “Versailles was a great subject for us in the first place, but we didn’t want to do another conventional historical series,” says Pierre Saint André, manager of French drama and coproductions for Création Originale at Canal+, which is headed by Fabrice de la Patellière. “We love Borgia, which aired on Canal+, but we wanted to do something different.”

Audiences for pay TV channels make it possible to take creative risks that their broad-reach, free-to-air terrestrial counterparts often cannot, especially in France, says Saint André. “For Canal+ as a pay TV channel in France doing original programming, it had to be something different, a distinctive approach and a fresh take on a specific story.”

David Wolstencroft
David Wolstencroft

The project was high budget from the start and needed coproduction partners. “We’re French producers and we don’t do productions of this scope, so it took some time to get the production together creatively and financially,” says Chelli.

Associate producer Aude Albano, of Zodiak France, adds: “Beyond bringing partners together, the big challenge of producing a major historical drama that looks beautiful and rich on screen is that it needs a lot of money.”

Chelli agrees: “It would have been impossible to do without the right funding, given the magnitude of the set and the rest of the production. If it had just been down to French money, we would have done it in a few months. With Versailles, you expect something beautiful – in terms of both the palace and the people. If you didn’t have the money, it would look ridiculous.”

The production’s grand scale also played a part in the appointment of French director Jalil Lespert (Yves Saint Laurent, Headwinds) to direct the drama’s first two episodes. “He was on the same wavelength as all of us in trying to do something new and unique with the show,” says Saint André.

The series starts in 1667 with a 28-year-old Louis XIV. The palace itself is still a hunting lodge, and war is raging. The king has left Paris and relocated his court to Versailles to establish absolute power over rebel French nobles. “Versailles was basically a political project, but Louis XIV also wanted to build the most beautiful palace in the world, so that’s what he did,” says Chelli.

A central theme of Versailles is the relationship between Louis XIV and his gay younger brother Philippe, a heroic warrior played by Alexander Vlahos (Merlin, Privates). Philippe’s wife Harriette – sister to Charles II of England and one of Louis’ lovers – dies at the start of the series, soon after the death of the French monarch’s mother.

Caroline Torrance
Caroline Torrance

“It was a blow for Louis and the end of his innocence,” says Chelli. “He had to grow up and face the next step in his history. We’re telling a universal story of two brothers who love their mother. It’s about becoming a man. There’s nothing specifically French about it, and hopefully the viewers will relate.”

The drama is anything but a slavish retelling of the period, with the copro partners and showrunners not interested in delivering a history lesson. “This is a piece of drama and we’re taking a few liberties with dates and events. We’re inventing something that could have happened,” says Chelli. Albano adds: “We were obsessed by airing a very modern take on this part of history, and that’s why it’s also great to have non-French writers on the show, who are free from self-censorship.”

Saint André agrees: “That’s what was very convincing in Simon and David’s approach. They delivered what a French writer perhaps wouldn’t have dared do. But this was the liberty we needed for Versailles. We don’t want to specialise in historical dramas. We’re looking for contemporary stories and series, so it had to be different and modern, visually and in its storytelling – and I think Versailles succeeds in both aspects.”

Wolstencroft says he’s using Versailles’ history as a lens to view the modern world. “I’m a historian and I love France, but I often don‘t agree with the way history is perceived. It’s true of Britain, too, where there’s this kind of preserved taxidermy. True history is a living, breathing moment in time and everyone remembers it differently. Versailles is the birth of France as a superpower in Europe, the birth of fashion and haute cuisine, of architecture being used by a ruler – it’s a bit like the beginning of New Labour, Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell, and there are parallels all the way through.”

Then there’s Versailles the brand. “It’s the first global brand,” says Wolstencroft. “Most people don’t know about France or Louis XIV, but they do know about Versailles. It’s like the original Nike symbol or the world’s first Superbowl spot. Everyone had heard about it, and it grew and grew to become a shop window and a place to manipulate politicians, as well as the centre of culture.”

Aude Albano
Aude Albano

Applying the US scriptwriter-showrunner model has also helped deliver a singular vision and give authorship to the series in a market driven by the producer-director model. “It’s useful to have this streamlined creative process, because it meant we could keep our eyes on the prize, which is quite hard when you have the infrastructure that we have and the expectations of what a period drama should be,” explains Wolstencroft. “We had to stop ourselves from going into Downton or Masterpiece territory.”

Versailles is anything but, and Mirren and Wolstencroft deliver a blinder at the end of episode one.

Wolstencroft suggests France’s next step should be to “empower writers to understand the basics of production.”

“Even among those writing for UK TV, there are people who don’t know how to make a scene better, or don’t feel empowered to do so,” he says. “They might have opinions but keep them to themselves. The writer-producer model in the US is very empowering because it means authorship. It’s the opposite of how it works in France, with the director of a show usually being its originator. It may threaten the pillars of established power but, actually, you get better stories at the end of it, so everybody wins – as the US has demonstrated.”

Versailles’ modern approach is reinforced by contemporary electronic music and pared-back hairstyles and makeup, eschewing the huge wigs and chalky faces of the period. “We watch UK shows here and everyone loves Downton Abbey,” says Chelli, “but this is not Downton. We’ve tried to do something different. Versailles is shot in a different way. It’s more modern, the music is mostly electronic and the entire production looks much more contemporary than Downton and some of the other classic period pieces.”

The visually lavish production, however, is certainly in keeping with the period, benefiting from advice by Versailles experts to capture the historical context.

Alongside accessing French subsidies, the production’s French base was important in terms of location and the top local technical production skill the show required, says Chelli. “We really wanted to do it in Paris, even if it was much more expensive than, say, doing it in Hungary. The palace is near Paris, and we built the set here. For us it’s a way to tell the world that a French production can do as much as any other.”

Versailles5A huge recreation of Versailles was built by set designer Katia Wyszkop (Potiche, Van Gogh) at the Studio de Bry just outside Paris, where much of the production is shot. Top costume designer Madeline Fontaine (Amélie) oversaw the transformation of 2,500 metres of fabric to the tune of more than €200,000, while the inclusion of Louis XIV-style coaches and horses cost €3,500 per day. As well as the core members of the cast, there were 220 extras and a menagerie of animals including wolves, eagles and pigs.

Versailles’ coproduction model has deliberately avoided too many partners. “We didn’t want to have too much input from different sources,” says Chelli. “It’s not a very simple partnership, because of Canada and the showrunners, but we’d rather choose the right partners and do what we want before offering it to the public.”

Eighty percent of the budget is French, with 60% coming from Canal+ and French public subsidies, including from Région Île-de-France, where production took place, plus coproducer Zodiak Media in exchange for worldwide distribution rights to the show outside of Canada.

The project’s Canadian coproducer Incendo has a 20% stake, and has brought Canadian pay channel Super Channel on board. Incendo is now overseeing the post-production phase, which runs from March to August, including a second commercial 10×44’ cut for the broader-reach free-to-air channels to help finance the pay TV version.

“Part of the attraction for the Canadian market is the French version that’s already paid for,” says Incendo’s Ian Whitehead, Canadian producer for the show. Canada is also fielding two actors, Tygh Runyan and Evan Williams, as well as movie director Daniel Roby, who helmed the final three episodes and for whom Versailles marks a TV debut.

Whitehead sees an advantage in having a clear lead broadcaster in the form of Canal+, adding that if a big US partner had been brought in right away, the process could have taken far longer. “To have more independence was a risk for everyone, but I think there’s going to be a big pay-off, because it’s a clear vision,” he says.

The production is nevertheless charting new territory, and with it come a few inevitable challenges. “Essentially it’s a big ask for everyone,” says Wolstencroft. “There’s the translation issue – not just linguistically but culturally. It’s a hybrid. It’s the first time it’s ever been done and the first experience for everyone. We’re like the first people on the Moon, in a way. There was no rehearsal. You discover Easter eggs as you go – some good, some bad; some useful, some challenging. The goal for everyone at every stage was making the story better, because that’s what matters, and the emotion.”

Finding actors was another early challenge, adds Chelli. This was resolved with a predominantly British cast, featuring mostly young and up-and-coming actors. “We didn’t want to do a Euro-pudding and we didn’t want lots of accents. David Wolstencroft was adamant about that,” he says. Ten of the drama’s 18-strong main cast are from the UK, complemented by four from France, two from Canada and a pair from Switzerland, including Anatole Taubman (Quantum of Solace) as the evil Moncourt.

Versailles8“The good thing about working with young actors,” says Saint André, “is that when the story starts all the characters are in their 20s, which is somewhat unusual. It’s normally about old kings trying to keep the balance of power.”

For Whitehead, one of the distinctive features of Versailles as a slice of French history done in the English language “is that it actually crystallises where things are at with television now.”

“Had this been a less ambitious show, it might have been completely financed by Canal+. It would have had Canal+’s extraordinary production values, but maybe it would have had remakes or been dubbed into English versions for other broadcasters,” he says.

“Here, it’s fallen to all of us as producers to make something much more global. We’re taking in the vision Canal+ has for its own channel and combining it with what, for example, a North American audience would expect. And we’re doing that on what should be a French-language show. That’s something unique compared with dramas about any other period.”

Versailles forms the centrepiece of Zodiak Rights’ sales catalogue at this year’s MipTV, where it is premiering to buyers internationally. Caroline Torrance, Zodiak’s head of international scripted, says there have already been strong expressions of interest, although the decision was taken not to confirm any buyers in advance in order to get the best deal and platform for the show.

“It’s one of the most expensive European dramas ever made, but it’s taking the period drama into another space,” says Torrance. “The showrunners and Canal+ want to push boundaries. They don’t want just another period drama – and neither do audiences. It’s very important for Canal+ to do groundbreaking drama, and doing it in English will resonate with markets like the UK, US, Australia and New Zealand.”

As for how Canal+’s French viewers will react when Versailles launches this fall, Saint André says: “We’ll see. Yes, we’re pushing the envelope, but our French subscribers watch tons of US and European shows that have been dubbed into French. We did it with Borgia and with Spotless.”

Development of a second season has already started, although Canal+ has yet to greenlight it. “If you’re doing these big, 10-episode series, you would want to be able to follow up without too long a delay between seasons,” says Torrance.

And there’s clearly much more story to tell. “Louis XIV is the longest-serving monarch in history,” says Wolstencroft. “I don’t want to scare the actors or anything, but there are so many phases of Louis’ life, and this is just the beginning. This is him revving up – he’s only around 30 at the end of season one. He died when he was 75, and we could go all the way to the revolution. This is only act one.”

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