Lennie James wrote and stars in Sky Atlantic drama Save Me, about a father’s hunt for his missing daughter. DQ joins him on the set to hear why one of its stars is also its setting – a pub.
They don’t make boozers like this anymore. The Palm Tree in the heart of an east London estate is a classic, old-fashioned pub. The regulars, for all we know, may well have been sitting on the same bar-stool for several years without moving.
The Palm Tree also features a karaoke booth that has very much seen better days, gravy-coloured wallpaper that appears to predate the invention of beer itself and fairy lights desperately clinging to the walls. These decorations are for life, not just for Christmas. “Gentrification” is not a word in this pub’s vocabulary.
For all that, The Palm Tree makes an excellent precinct for Save Me, an absorbing new drama that starts in the UK on Sky Atlantic on February 28. Outside of the soaps, this is not a setting we have witnessed very often before on mainstream British TV.
In this new six-part series written by and starring Lennie James, this is the court where the drama’s central character, Nelson “Nelly” Rowe (played by James), holds sway. Nelly is in the Palm Tree every night regaling his fellow punters with colourful tales of his previous night’s exploits. It may have been amusing 20 years ago, but now that Nelly is pushing 50, it’s bordering on sad. At his age, this is a man who really should know better.
Living hand-to-mouth from a series of cash-in-hand jobs, Nelly never stays long in one place, moving in with whichever woman is foolish enough to tolerate him that week.
Chatting to DQ between scenes, James makes for magnetic company. It is easy to grasp why the actor, who was raised in Tooting, south London, has proven such a mesmerising presence in everything from Line of Duty to The Walking Dead.
“I wanted to write a thriller in a place I really knew well,” says James, when asked why he chose this unlikely pub as the principle locus of his drama. With a winning grin, he adds: “Basically, I didn’t want to do hours of research.”
Researched or not, the Palm Tree is the ideal arena in which the drama can unfold. Random people flit in and out of it, but whatever else is going on, you can guarantee that Nelly will always be there, centre stage, playing to an adoring audience (including characters played by Stephen Graham, Susan Lynch and Kerry Godliman).
James reflects: “The pub is a very important part of the story because you go there both to drown your sorrows and to celebrate. Both things can happen at the same time and over the same pint.”
Crucially, the Palm Tree and its motley crew of regulars also smack of authenticity. James observes: “In any pub, there’ll always be a Nelly. People like that do exist. All the core characters in Save Me are based on real people. They’re not 100% depictions, but they’re versions of people I’ve come across.”
Lynch, who plays barmaid Stace, confirms that when she served in bars to make ends meet early on in her career, she came across many Nellys. “I worked in nearly every pub on the Finchley Road when I was at drama school. Many were just like the Palm Tree. You always had your regulars. You would start your shift by saying, ‘Really, Tommy, I’m sorry to hear she’s not very well.’ By the end of the shift, you’d be thinking, ‘I can’t engage with Tommy tomorrow or else I’m never going to get my glasses washed and get home.’”
The actor, who was also had leading roles in From Hell, Waking Ned and Enduring Love, continues: “A pub is a very good setting for a drama as all the stories can cross over there. All the stories start to merge in The Palm Tree, and by the end, there is a huge collision.”
Nelly’s bibulous ‘we’ve got tonight, who needs tomorrow?’ approach to life is rudely interrupted one morning when the police burst in and arrest him on suspicion of kidnapping Jody, the 13-year-old daughter he hasn’t seen for 10 years.
After Nelly had a brief, summer fling with Claire (played by Suranne Jones) more than a decade ago, Jody was born. But when she reached the age of three, Claire decided to move away from their London estate to a bling mansion in the suburbs to start afresh with her flashy record producer husband. That was the last time Nelly saw Jody. Determined to prove his innocence, Nelly discovers hidden depths within himself. But will it be enough to save him?
It is the very fact that Nelly is so singularly ill-equipped to take on the task of establishing his own innocence that makes Save Me so compelling.
James, who has also starred in Jericho, Critical, Low Winter Sun and Snatch, muses: “This is a thriller, just set in place where no one sets a thriller. And the hero of the piece is completely unqualified to be a hero.
“But in attempting to prove his innocence, Nelly finds some sort of redemption. This is a story about the cost of redemption and what it does to him, his ex-lover, his friends and his community.”
For all that, Save Me is very far from an irredeemably grim ‘woe is me’ drama. It is replete with vibrancy, vim and vigour. Jones, who drew widespread acclaim as the titular character in Doctor Foster, comments: “People love dark stories because they take you to a place you think you don’t want to go, but really you do.
“Having said that, the reason Save Me is so different is because it’s also so full of the humour and the history of these people. It portrays a community you’ve never seen before. It’s so warm.”
The estate depicted in Save Me undoubtedly overturns our expectations. Jones continues: “This world is sometimes painted as depressing. But this is very different. When you watch Save Me, you want to be there. Even if you haven’t grown up on an estate like this, you want to go to that pub and meet these people.”
Writing and starring in Save Me required a lot of effort from James. But it has all been worth it. Made by World Productions and distributed by Sky Vision, this is a riveting drama about a man desperately attempting to rescue himself from a life of self-medication, muddling-through and mediocrity.
James declares: “I’m proud that I’m the first person to get a thriller set on a south-east London estate made. I don’t know if it will spawn a new genre, though.”
Perhaps the best part of Save Me, though, is that its producers evaded the easy option. They avoided the temptation to turn out another Richard Curtis-lite version of London. This is perhaps a more accurate reflection of the capital city most people know. It is not prettified and full of red post boxes and red telephone booths, but red in tooth and claw.
Save Me shows us a London we will never glimpse in a tourist brochure. Simon Heath, head of drama at World Productions and executive producer on this series, concludes: “This is a world we don’t see on our TV screens outside EastEnders, but that’s a very different genre. To set a drama in south-east London feels fresh and surprising. We’ll see a different side to London in Save Me.
“It’s not the London of Notting Hill and red buses and black cabs.”
Set in 43AD, anarchic drama Britannia follows the Roman army as they return to crush the Celtic heart of Britannia, a mysterious land led by warrior women and powerful Druids who claim to channel the forces of the underworld.
David Morrissey stars as Roman general Aulus, alongside Kelly Reilly, Zoe Wanamaker, Ian McDiarmid and Mackenzie Crook.
In this DQTV interview, Morrissey reveals what drew him to the unusual role and how he was captivated by the show’s stunning set design.
The actor and executive producer James Richardson also discuss working with co-creator Jez Butterworth, the acclaimed playwright behind Jerusalem and The Ferryman, and explain why this isn’t just another historical drama.
Britannia is produced by Vertigo Films and Neal Street Productions for Sky Atlantic and Amazon Prime Video in the US. Sky Vision is the distributor.
Hair, make-up and prosthetics designer Davina Lamont discusses her work on epic Sky and Amazon historical drama Britannia, in which a Roman army faces up to Druids and Celts in 43AD.
When Davina Lamont received a last-minute call asking her if she wanted to come and work on a “nice little Roman job,” there’s little chance she realised the scale of what was to come.
In fact, the hair, make-up and prosthetics designer could not have joined a more ambitious and visually striking series than Britannia, the Roman Empire-set drama coming to Sky Atlantic and Amazon.
But having worked on The Lord of the Rings film trilogy and series such as Sons of Liberty, Legends and two seasons of National Geographic’s Genius, she had the experience needed to bring to life the three vastly different tribes that feature in the story.
“They told me for Genius season one that they had this little project and it’s going to be a nice little script – and then it turned into a monster,” Lamont recalls. “Britannia was the same. I got called in at the last minute and was told, ‘It’ll be really cool.’ Then it just went crazy. But I’m happy for those jobs.
“Producers are starting to like the fact they have one designer who does all three, instead of splitting up the team and having a hair designer, prosthetic designer and make-up designer. They like the fact, budget-wise, they pay one person to do all three, and I enjoy it too. I love the fact I can go from one job to the next and it’s really different – and creatively different. I do prefer to take on those sorts of jobs – the big and difficult ones.”
In television, they don’t come much bigger than Britannia, which is set in 43AD and follows the Roman army as it sets out to crush the Celtic heart of the mysterious titular land, one led by warrior women and powerful Druids who claim to channel the forces of the underworld.
The nine-part historical drama stars Kelly Reilly as fearless Celtic princess Kerra, David Morrissey as Aulus, the head of the invading Roman army, Nikolaj Lie Kaas as rogue Druid Divis and Zoë Wanamaker as Celtic queen Antedia.
All episodes of the series, produced by Vertigo Films in association with Neal Street Productions and distributed by Sky Vision, are available to view from Thursday on Sky Atlantic and Now TV.
With just five weeks of pre-production to put her ideas together, Lamont worked with costume designer Ann Maskrey and production designer Tom Burton to create this unknown world and decide how they would represent the different tribes.
“Then from that point, we all went into this exploratory period,” Lamont says. “Five weeks was all we had to put it together. It was tough to try to figure out what the Druids were going to look like. I know they wanted a lot of tattoos and wanted some Vikings-cum-Game of Thrones elements involved. We just had to work it out and work out how it transcends into each and every tribe.”
That exploration process included plenty of trial and error. Lamont says she even questioned whether they should be putting tattoos on the Celtic king (Star Wars’ Ian McDiarmid, as Pellenor) and queen.
“It looked ridiculous,” she jokes. “There were times when I thought, “Oh my God, this is my last job.’ But then you put everybody else into the same world on the same set and you go, ‘Actually it looks phenomenal.’ It was scary to start with, especially with Veran.”
Veran is the leader of the Druids, a character feared and respected in equal measure and who claims to speak directly from the Gods. Portraying him on screen is Mackenzie Crook, known for turns in the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise and TV series such as The Office and Detectorists. In Britannia, however, the star is unrecognisable, sporting a shaved head and several layers of prosthetics and make-up that give him a skeletal appearance, with dark sunken eyes and numerous facial tattoos and scars.
“Basically I woke up one morning and wanted to change him completely,” Lamont says of creating Crook’s appearance. “That’s how he came about. I designed the look and then I sent it off to the producers and told them to sit down because this was what I wanted to do with him. But they loved it and said go for it.
“When I rang up Mackenzie for the first time and we chatted over the phone, he said it was brilliant and was exactly what he wanted to have. So it was great, it worked out perfectly. He was brilliant, and then I said I had to shave his head – he was all for it.”
At that point, however, the scripts were still being pulled together by lead writers Jez Butterworth, Tom Butterworth and Richard McBrien so it was unclear how many days Crook would be required to get into costume. But thanks to Crook’s startling look and impressive performances, his screen time grew and grew.
“I don’t remember how many prosthetics we did on him in the end, it was massive,” Lamont says. “We made it to three to three-and-a-half hours for him [to get ready]. It’s a long time.”
Crook also came in with his own ideas for Veran’s image, in particular the little round hooks we see on the end of his finger nails.
“On the very first day we did his make-up, he came in with these hooks and started drilling into his nails,” Lamont remembers. “I was like, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘I’ve got something to show you – I really want to do this.’ He drilled into his own nails with a drill and put these rings on. It was brilliant. So he’s fantastic to work with, he’s down for anything. He’s a brilliant actor.”
Speaking about his transformation, Crook says: “I found it brilliant. I loved every minute of it. From the design to going and having a cast made, and the daily ritual of putting it on, we started off at five hours and then they got it down to three-and-a-half – it was a brilliant process. Watching the skill of the make-up team and seeing myself slowly transformed in front of the mirror helped me get into and form the character.”
Another actor who spent plenty of time in make-up was Gershwyn Eustache Jr, who plays Vitus. Also a Druid and part of Veran’s gang, he needed to have a similar look, calling for more tattoos and scarification on his face. Lamont continues: “We also had Divis (Lie Kaas). We really didn’t know what we were going to do with him. At one point he was also going to have a shaved head, and then the producers really loved the fact we etched runes into his forehead and made them like scarification. Everybody had tattoos, prosthetics, contact lenses, big battle wounds. Every single character had something.”
With the amount of money washing through television drama these days, you might expect the design teams get to play with a bigger budget, especially on a show such as Britannia. Yet Lamont says the figures she has worked with over the last few years haven’t seen the same upward trend as overall series budgets.
“They like to start off by giving me a budget that’s really small,” she explains. “But then the scripts don’t portray the budget I have. Nearly every job over the last 10 years, especially in TV now, I get a budget and it’s nowhere near close enough to what [we need for what] we have to do. My budgets do end up getting a lot bigger. Especially on Britannia, the scripts were still being developed as we were going along so we really didn’t know what would come up in the mix or all the new characters coming through. It was a big guessing game.
“When you don’t know what’s coming up, it gets really expensive because you have to have a number of wigs on hire or made and prosthetics that have to come with it. That’s what happened with Veran’s lot. We didn’t know there were going to be three other actors involved so they became big elements for us. It’s definitely changed from what TV used to be, even 10 years ago, when you could pretty much picture the budget. Now we’re basically doing five feature films in one TV show.”
Unsurprisingly, bigger budgets are demanded by dramas at the fantasy end of the spectrum, as opposed real-world stories on which Lamont has worked on like Top of the Lake. The designer admits she doesn’t know why she continues to be drawn back to genre shows, but says part of the fun is getting to create new worlds for each job.
“I feel like I’m probably meant to be in the fantasy world but I love the fact I can go from a job like Britannia and then go and do a job like Genius,” she adds. “They’re hugely different. With Genius, I have to make people look like they were from the 1900s, like Picasso [season two] and Einstein [season one] – actual people from the past. I love recreating people in that way. I’ve never really been into fantasy but I always get pushed into that genre, so I’ll run with it for now.”
Britannia, Sky Atlantic’s epic Romans-in-Britain drama, debuts early next year. Ahead of the show’s world premiere at Mipcom this week, DQ talks to Sky drama chiefs Anne Mensah and Cameron Roach.
After the success of Sky Atlantic’s Penny Dreadful and sister channel Sky1’s Jamestown, period drama appears to be working well for Sky drama commissioners Anne Mensah and Cameron Roach.
It’s been 10 years since HBO’s classic Rome (and four since Starz’s Spartacus), but the satcaster looks to be taking advantage of a renewed interest in classical history on TV, with Britannia set to debut in January 2018.
Bad Wolf’s Jane Tranter was, of course, responsible for overseeing Rome for HBO and the BBC alongside Anne Thomopoulos
And while it isn’t set in the same era, BBC1’s upcoming £8.5m (US$11.3m)-per-episode show Troy: Fall of a City certainly shares some of the appeal of these ‘sword & sandal’ drama series.
The success of Game of Thrones, with its dynastic bloodletting, treachery, hedonism and epic battles, has probably helped spark an increase in curiosity about Ancient Rome, while HBO’s 2005-07 series was felt by industry insiders to have been something of a dry run for Thrones itself, brought to grief by budgetary issues.
Rome stars James Purefoy (Mark Antony) and Kevin McKidd (Lucius Vorenus) went on the record saying they wouldn’t join former colleagues Ciaran Hinds, Indira Varma or Tobias Menzies in the hit series because they thought Rome was cancelled to set up Game of Thrones’ success.
More recently, two cinema releases used the Roman occupation of Britain south of the Antonine Wall and the disappearance of the Ninth Legion as subject matter – 2010’s Centurion (directed by regular Thrones helmer Neil Marshall), which coincidentally starred Britannia’s David Morrissey (The Walking Dead) as a veteran legionary, and the following year’s The Eagle with a cast led by Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell.
Britannia scribe Jez Butterworth has also previously tried his hand at the Roman era, co-writing 2007’s The Last Legion with his brother Tom. The film was set in the dying days of the Western Empire and starred Colin Firth, Ben Kingsley and Rome’s Kevin McKidd.
The movie also featured no fewer than five prominent Thrones castmembers – Iain Glen (Jorah Mormont), Owen Teale (Alliser Thorne), Robert Pugh (Craster), James Cosmo (Joer Mormont) and Alexander Siddig (the gout-ridden Prince Doran Martell).
For Britannia, Butterworth has once again partnered with his brother Tom and James Richardson to create a story set in AD43 that follows the Roman army as it returns to conquer the land held by warrior women and powerful Druids who claim to channel the forces of the underworld.
Kelly Reilly (True Detective) plays Kerra, daughter of the King of the Cantii, who is forced to put her differences with arch-rival Queen Antedia (Zoe Wanamaker) aside to face their invaders. The Romans, led by General Aulus Plautius (Morrissey), are determined to succeed where Julius Caesar failed and conquer this mythical land at the far edge of the Roman Empire.
As tribes and Druids, led by Mackenzie Crook’s Veran, unite to fight the Romans, Kerra is thrust into the most important role of her life as she spearheads the resistance against the might of the Roman army.
The show is produced by Vertigo Films and Neal Street Productions and distributed by Sky Vision. It will also air on Sky Atlantic in Ireland, Germany and Italy, while Amazon Prime holds the US rights.
Asked if there were any particular influences that led to the commissioning of Britannia, Roach says: “The fact that period drama in the shape of Penny Dreadful worked for Sky Atlantic led us to look at something similarly experiential, with Britannia offering a truly original experience – one that doesn’t ape other shows.”
Mensah is also keen to emphasise the “visceral” nature of Britannia: “It combines epic scale with a human, personal level – some of the communal pagan rites that the Britons and Druids go through bear comparison to modern-day festivals such as Burning Man.”
Mensah is confident the show’s presumably hefty budget will all be up on the screen for viewers to see. With more than 200 people working on the production and reconstructions of Stonehenge and the Celtic underworld (which included animating hundreds of life-size skeletons and disembodied skulls), Britannia doesn’t aim to stint on arresting visuals.
Flashes of unexpected Burning Man-type modernity will apparently not be reflected in the show’s dialogue, which Mensah and Roach assure will stay true to Butterworth’s “unique voice,” rather than attempt a cod-Classical or a slangy contemporary style.
Although Butterworth did not consciously base Britannia on any specific contemporary account of the Roman invasion of Britain (the third after Julius Caesar’s two abortive attempts a century earlier), he did consult with historian Jonathan Stamp – a BBC History producer and a consultant for HBO’s Rome – to ensure the look and veracity of the series was generally accurate.
In terms of casting, Mensah and Roach stress how happy they to secure such familiar and audience-friendly names as Morrissey, Reilly, Wanamaker, Crook (The Office), Ian McDiarmid (Star Wars) and Julian Rhind-Tutt (Green Wing), with fresh faces including The Enfield Haunting’s breakout star Eleanor Worthington Cox.
Crook previously co-starred with Mark Rylance in Butterworth’s hit stage play Jerusalem.
The visual style of Britannia is also going to be a change from some of the bleakness and windswept vistas seen in similar genre pieces such as the aforementioned Centurion, with Roach promising “a look to the show that really hasn’t been seen before, with lush primary colours and a vibrancy not usually associated with period drama.”
Both Roach and Mensah stress that amid the carnage of the invasion, Britannia will not be without humour, and that the Romans, although understandably the antagonists in the series, will possess shades of grey, as will the native Britons and the Druids.
“Complex characters and believable motivations” are key, according to Mensah, hence Britannia’s presence on Sky Atlantic – which, according to Sky Entertainment director of programmes Zai Bennett, is primarily the home of “heavily serialised, smart, grown-up storytelling,” in contrast to Sky1, where series such as Stan Lee’s Lucky Man have “really clear heroes and villains.”
And while Mensah and Roach are wary of comparisons with Game of Thrones, they are upbeat on the prospect of Britannia extending beyond season one, with story arcs mapped out at least to a possible third season.
In Mensah’s words: “The ambition is to be big.”
With speculation rife that Thrones’ eighth and final season will not appear until 2019 and the attendant spin-offs in the following years, Britannia may have the potential to provide Sky with a homegrown show appealing to a similar audience, which could score a swift season two pick-up (as have Tin Star for Sky Atlantic and Jamestown for Sky1), echoing the success of Vikings for History.
The great and good of the television industry are once again packing their bags for another week in the south of France. DQ previews some of the drama series set to break out at Mipcom 2017.
Mipcom is often viewed as an opportunity for US studios to showcase their scripted series to international buyers. But this year the US will be jostling for attention with dramas from the likes of Spain, Russia, Brazil, Japan, Scandinavia and the UK.
The Spanish contingent is especially strong thanks to a major investment in drama by Telefonica’s Movistar+. Titles on show will be Gigantes, distributed by APC; La Peste, distributed by Sky Vision; and La Zona and Velvet Collection, both from Beta Film. The latter is a spin-off from Antena 3’s popular Velvet, previously sold around the world by Beta.
Beta is also in Cannes with Morocco – Love in Times of War, as well as Farinia – Snow on the Atlantic, both produced by Bambu for Antena 3. The former is set in war-torn Spanish Morocco in the 1920s, where a group of nurses look after troops, while Farinia centres on a fisherman who becomes a wealthy smuggler by providing South American cartels a gateway to Europe.
Mipcom’s huge Russian contingent is linked, in part, to the fact 2018 is the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Titles that tackle this subject include Demon of Revolution, Road to Calvary and Trotsky – the latter two of which will be screened at the market. Trotsky, produced by Sreda Production for Channel One Russia, is an eight-part series that tells the story of the flamboyant and controversial Leon Trotsky, an architect of the Russian Revolution and Red Army who was assassinated in exile.
Other high-profile Russian projects include TV3’s Gogol, a series of film-length dramas that reimagine the famous mystery writer as an amateur detective. Already a Russian box-office hit, the films will be screened to TV buyers at Mipcom.
Japanese drama has found a new international outlet recently following Nippon TV’s format deal for Mother in Turkey (a successful adaptation that has resulted in more interest in Japanese content among international buyers). The company is now back with a drama format called My Son. NHK, meanwhile, is screening Kurara: The Dazzling Life of Hokusai’s Daughter, a 4K production about Japan’s most famous artist.
Brazil’s Globo, meanwhile, is moving beyond the telenovelas for which it is so famous. After international recognition for dramas like Above Justice and Jailers, it will be in Cannes with Under Pressure, a coproduction with Conspiração that recorded an average daily reach of 40.2 million viewers when it aired in Brazil.
From mainland Europe, there’s a range of high-profile titles at Mipcom including Bad Banks, distributed by Federation Entertainment, which looks at corruption within the global banking world. From the Nordic region there is StudioCanal’s The Lawyer, which includes Hans Rosenfeldt (The Bridge) as one of its creators, and season two of FremantleMedia International’s Modus. The latter is particularly interesting for starring Kim Cattrall, signalling a shift towards a more hybrid Anglo-Swedish project.
While non-English-language drama will have a high profile at the market, there are compelling projects from the UK, Canada and Australia. UK’s offerings include Sky Vision’s epic period piece Britannia and All3Media International’s book adaptation The Miniaturist – both with screenings. There’s also BBC Worldwide’s McMafia (pictured top), sold to Amazon on the eve of the market, and ITV Studios Global Entertainment’s The City & The City, produced by Mammoth Screen and written by Tony Grisoni.
From Canada, there is Kew Media-distributed Frankie Drake Mysteries, from the same stable as the Murdoch Mysteries, while Banijay Rights is offering season two of Australian hit Wolf Creek. There’s also a screening for Pulse, a medical drama from ABC Commercial and Screen Australia.
Of course, it would be wrong to neglect the US entirely,since leading studios will be in town with some strong content. A+E Networks, for example, will bring actor Catherine Zeta-Jones to promote Cocaine Godmother, a TV movie about 1970s Miami drug dealer Griselda Blanco, aka The Black Widow.
Sony Pictures Entertainment, meanwhile, is screening Counterpart, in which JK Simmons (Whiplash, La La Land) plays Howard Silk, a lowly employee in a Berlin-based UN spy agency. When Silk discovers that his organisation safeguards the secret of a crossing into a parallel dimension, he is thrust into a world of intrigue and danger where the only man he can trust is his near-identical counterpart from this parallel world.
If you’re in Cannes, don’t forget to pick up the fall 2017 issue of Drama Quarterly, which features Icelandic thriller Stella Blómkvist, McMafia, Benedict Cumberbatch’s The Child in Time, Australian period drama Picnic at Hanging Rock and much more.
The cast and crew of Riviera return to the South of France for the world premiere of Sky Atlantic’s compelling crime drama. Michael Pickard spoke to the production team about creating a dark, corrupt world below the surface of this playground for the super-rich.
The story of Riviera plays out entirely on location across the south of France, capturing every aspect of this impossibly glamorous and wealthy part of the world to tell a story that uncovers a layer of darkness and corruption beneath the glossy exterior.
So it’s only fitting that the cast and crew of the 10-part series are in Cannes today to attend the series’ world premiere at MipTV.
It’s a quick return to the French Riviera for the team behind the Sky Atlantic drama, which is produced by Archery Pictures and Primo Productions, having only completed production earlier this year. The finishing touches to the show, distributed by Sky Vision, are now being put together ahead of its debut this summer.
Julia Stiles (pictured top) stars as Georgina, a Midwestern US girl turned smart, resourceful wife of the billionaire Constantine Clios. But after just a year of marriage, her immaculate new life is blown apart, literally, when her art collector husband Constantine is killed in an explosion aboard the yacht of a Russian oligarch and arms dealer.
Believing there to be more to the tragedy, she sets out to uncover what happened. Dark truths about Constantine’s dealings emerge and, as she begins to realise who she was really married to, Georgina enters a spiral of moral descent as she becomes immersed in a world of lies, double-dealing and criminality.
Lena Olin co-stars as Irina, the first wife of Constantine, Adrian Lester as Georgina’s friend and art dealer Robert Carver; Iwan Rheon and Dimitri Leonidas as Constantine’s sons Adam and Christos; Roxane Duran as Adriana; and Phil Davis as Jukes, the art fraud investigator trying to get to the truth.
The idea for a series set on the French Riviera was sparked by Paul McGuinness, the former manager of Irish rock band U2 who owned a house in the region for many years. After discussing the idea with Archery Pictures execs Liza Marshall and Kris Thykier, McGuiness pitched the project to Oscar-winning writer Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, The Borgias), who came on board as series creator, writer and exec producer.
“Paul and Neil have been friends for years, so Neil came on board and wrote the pilot script and the bible,” Marshall recalls. “Sky were very excited and greenlit the show on that and then we were off.”
Thykier says the idea began life as a film but over the course of the 18-month development period, it took shape as a television series.
He continues: “It felt fresh, exciting and entertaining. Although Riviera is about darkness and corruption that sits underneath the surface of this particular world, there was something about it that was also bright, colourful and glamorous. So the combination of complexity of character and that Neil Jordan tone, matched with one of the great locations of the world, caught everyone’s attention.
“Neil wrote the first two scripts with John Banville and then brought on some new young writers. Julia Stiles came on board to play our heroine Georgina. It sounds so easy but there were various steps along the way. In some respects, that initial creative vision that Neil provided set the blueprint for the show and we started shooting last summer until the beginning of this year.”
Marshall says that with Jordan’s list of credits, the story was always going to be about a dynastic family.
“Having done The Borgias, he was attracted to that kind of subject matter but quite quickly we realised we wanted to tell the story of one woman, Georgina Clios, who is at the heart of it,” the exec producer says. “She’s our eyes into this world. She wasn’t born into it, she climbed up. She recently married her husband Constantine so they’re madly in love at the start of the show. Then he’s killed in a giant yacht explosion.”
A grand villa in Villefranche doubles as the Clios family home, while locations along the coast were used to bring Riviera to life. As Marshall notes, “it’s set where it’s shot.”
“We began in August [last year], which was a pretty tough time to be shooting in the south of France because it’s the height of the season, so it was very expensive,” she says. “We were based in some old film studios in Nice, so everything was relatively close. It was very expensive shooting there and they have labour laws that are quite different to ours [in the UK]. There’s a limit to how long you can shoot per day, and it’s five-day weeks, which is unusual, not 11-day fortnights. But it was so worth it because you get so much value on screen. Every time we could point to the sea or some scenery, you could see they were living this opulent lifestyle, which people do down there on the Riviera.”
Thykier picks up: “It’s a cliche when people say the location is one of the characters, but bizarrely on this, it really is, I promise. We had one returning set which was the villa but, apart from that, we shot the shit out of the south of France and hopefully you’ll see it on screen. We never limited our ambitions in terms of this world because ultimately it’s the world of the 1%. It is yachts, helicopters, cars, grand hotels and grand promenades. So it was fantastic.”
The start of production was complicated, however, by tragic circumstances as shooting began three days after a truck careered into crowds celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, killing more than 80 people.
“A lot of our crew were from Nice and the environs so that was obviously tragic and tough,” Thykier reflects. “Any big show of that scale over that time period will have some production ups and downs but to be honest, we rather loved the crew there. In a way, the awful events meant the town was very keen to welcome to us. They wanted to show they were open for business and weren’t going to be cowed. There was a solidarity to the city and they were incredibly welcoming so we were able to access great locations.”
Behind the camera, Philipp Kadelbach (Generation War) came in as lead director, helming the first two episodes and laying the blueprints for the four directors who followed him. He worked alongside director of photography Laurie Rose and costume designer Emma Fryer to create the look and style of the series, which, as viewers might expect, drips with opulence. In particular, inspiration was taken from Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 movie Le Mépris, which starred Brigitte Bardot.
“When you see Georgina and Irina, they just look completely fabulous,” says Marshall. “Irina’s wearing a selection of great dresses, trouser suits and high heels and that was really important to the look of the show as well. We wanted it to be beautiful and glamorous.”
When it came to casting the series, Stiles was first choice to play the central role. Thykier describes the actor as bright and brilliant, with an innate integrity and honesty that was necessary to lead an eclectic cast of characters, many of whom are described as morally bankrupt.
“She’s always been an incredibly attractive actor in that regard both for men and women and we needed someone to be the emotional heart of the show,” he says. “She was always our dream casting. We’re very fortunate we have a rather brilliant cast of actors around her – Lena, Adrian, Iwan – so it was good. One of the things we’re proudest of is that it’s a cast of very talented actors.”
Running the production on the ground was series producer Foz Allan, who had recently finished ITV’s supernatural drama Jekyll & Hyde when Marshall approached him about joining Riviera.
“Liza gave me a call, she asked me if I wanted to do it and you just go, ‘Yeah.’ What’s not to like?” he admits. “Neil Jordan, Sky – it was all good, and you get to live in Nice for a year!”
Having previously worked in Hungary, Kenya, Sweden and Australia, setting up in France proved to be no problem for Allan, utilising support from local producer Peninsula Films to bring together the local crew.
“Part of the treat of Riviera is lifting a curtain on a world that most of us don’t see” Allan says. “Going back and forth to Heathrow, I was finding myself more often in the expensive-watch section and I’m looking at £5,000 watches, thinking, ‘that’s quite reasonable actually’ – and the only way I’m thinking that is because I’ve been in a world where everything starts at £5,000 and then moves up. It was very exciting. Julia Stiles was genuinely a breathtaking performer. She was always on the money. Lena Olin’s mesmeric. The whole cast was great. It was long and complex but, actually, it was brilliant fun and they’re great performers. The scripts got stronger and stronger.”
Coming from CGI-heavy Jekyll & Hyde, Allan reveals that Riviera also had touches of computer wizardry. He explains: “The brand ‘Riviera’ has blue skies, right? So how often do you actually get blue skies out there? The truth is quite often but not every time you’re shooting. So you’ve got to deliver the brand in the same way. [Creator] Charlie Higson’s warped imagination for Jekyll & Hyde was as complex to make happen as Neil Jordan’s lyrical imagination for Riviera. The job is just to make sure you capture these imaginations and get them out to a wider audience.”
But that wasn’t the biggest challenge facing Allan on location. “We had to blow up a US$25m yacht, so first we had to get a US$25m yacht and then get the man who owns it not to mind that it will appear to have been blown up,” the producer says. “That was quite a complex journey.”
It was also a journey for Thykier, whose background had been entirely in the film business, compared to his former Archery Pictures partner Marshall, who has worked on Taboo and the Red Riding trilogy and has now set up on her own at Hera Pictures. Thykier describes Riviera as a “big learning curve,” in terms of both working with multiple directors and dealing with an ever-evolving script.
“I used a lot of muscles I hadn’t used before,” he admits. “We were originally going to kill a certain character at a certain point in the series, but after about two weeks shooting, they were fantastic and we found a way to keep them in. So it was that wonderful thing of being able to adapt the series to the talent we had. That was really exciting and different. But it’s long and hard. I have newfound respect for the people at the top of their game in this business because it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
“I’ve been friends with [The Crown producer Left Bank Pictures’ CEO] Andy Harries for many years and always respected him and thought he was brilliant. I now think he’s a genius! Once you’ve been through one of these big shows, you recognise it’s hard work and the people at the top of that game are really very brilliant.”
With Riviera designed with the potential to become a returning series, the cast and crew could find themselves back in the south of France not long after attending the world premiere at Cannes’ Palais des Festivals.
But Marshall says it’s testament to Sky’s ambition to create British drama that stands alongside the HBO and Showtime series that also air on Sky Atlantic which has given birth to a big-budget, 10-part series like Riviera.
“Nobody else is doing that yet in the UK but Sky are because they’ve got big ambitions for their drama,” she concludes. “What’s interesting when you come to a project like this is it’s very different to making a film. There’s so much more story, it’s all about the writers, it’s very episodic. In film, the director is in charge; in television, it’s much more the writers medium. What’s exciting is it’s just all about content. People just want to make good stuff and there’s lots of opportunity at the moment which is great.”
Andy Fry casts his eye over this year’s selection for the MipTV Drama Screenings and finds an eclectic mix vying for the awards on offer.
In 2016, MipTV organiser Reed Midem decided to celebrate the global boom in scripted TV by launching its own drama awards. Dubbed the MipDrama Screenings, the first year was such a hit with buyers that the event has been brought back for 2017.
Just like last year, 12 finalists have been pre-selected for the awards in Cannes by an advisory board made up of experienced buyers. These shows will now compete for three awards – one decided by a jury of producers, another by critics and a third by buyers, who get to vote for their favourite show after screenings.
There are a couple of points about the MipDrama Screenings that make them particularly interesting. The first is that they focus on non-US titles, meaning that producers from less high-profile markets get a better chance to stand out from the crowd.
This year’s 12 comprise dramas from the UK (three), Germany (two), Russia (two), Canada, France, Denmark, Norway and Brazil. This echoes the story last year when Public Enemy, a drama from Belgium, was selected as the event’s top drama.
The second is that they are all new titles, which means many of them haven’t had much market exposure until now. A couple, like Babylon Berlin and Ride Upon the Storm, have been flagged up for a while – but this is not an awards programme for endlessly returning series like Game of Thrones or American Horror Story. In fact, around half the series being showcased are still in the middle of production.
So what can we learn from the 12 finalists? Well, in terms of subject matter, several deal with themes that have been pretty prominent in film and TV drama recently. Federation Entertainment’s Bad Banks, for example, is a new look at the world of big finance, while Sky Vision’s Bad Blood is a gangster series based on a true story.
All Media Company’s Russian drama Better Than Us (pictured top) is an exploration of AI’s role in our lives, while TV Globo’s Jailers is a new take on prison drama – this time from the point of view of guards, rather than inmates.
There are also a couple of cop shows, though perhaps not the kind we’re used to. The Territory, for example, is an eight-part drama from Sreda Production in Russia. The story is set in a town where a series of ritualistic murders take place. As a result, a pugnacious detective is called in to deal with the situation.
There is also Germany’s Babylon Berlin, a high-end drama series based on the thrillers by Volker Kutscher. Set in 1920s Berlin with Tom Tykwer as showrunner, this could be one of the landmark series of the year if it lives up to the hype.
The rest of the finalists tackle an eclectic and unusual range of subjects. For example, Missions, distributed by AB International, is a futuristic thriller focused on a Mars mission that goes wrong. While we’ve seen Mars as the focus of films and documentary series, this is the first recent TV drama to come to market (though others are in the pipeline).
Ride Upon the Storm is another leftfield drama. From Borgen creator Adam Price and produced by DR Drama in coproduction with Arte France and SAM le Francais, this is a story about faith, both in the traditional religious sense and in the wider context of what it is that guides us through our existence. It centres on an alcoholic, abusive priest and his two sons.
Faith may seem like a tough subject for a TV drama, but after Borgen (politics) and Follow the Money (finance), DR Drama is as likely as any to pull it off. Speaking about the series, Price says: “Despite the fact the Danes might not see themselves as a religious nation, we are surrounded by faith in our daily life. Faith fills the public debate – when atheists encourage people to leave the church, when we discuss integration, the refugee crisis, terrorism or the US presidential election. But also when we nurture mindfulness, ‘hipster Buddhism’ or the familiar blend of superstition and spirituality.”
Interestingly, the other Scandi finalist goes to the other end of the moral spectrum. Produced by HandsUp Stockholm for Viaplay Nordic, Veni Vidi Vici tells the story of a failing movie director who attempts to revive his career by working in the adult entertainment industry. However, this suspect career move forces him into a double life that threatens his family.
The show is part of Viaplay’s push into original drama. Explaining why his company backed the show, Viaplay CEO Jonas Karlén says: “We are convinced combining acquired TV dramas such as Empire and Blacklist with original Nordic drama is our future. Viaplay will take the lead on original productions in the Nordics, with 50 projects in the pipeline until 2020 with great stories that also have the potential to travel.”
A strong UK pool consists of ITV’s Fearless, Channel 4’s Gap Year and the BBC’s Clique – projects that all benefit from having strong writers at the tiller. Fearless, for example, is from Patrick Harbinson (Homeland). Starring Helen McCrory (Peaky Blinders), it tells the story of a solicitor who gets caught up in a political mystery while investigating the killing of a schoolgirl.
“Fearless is a legal thriller, but one that’s written in the crash zone where law and politics collide,” says Harbinson. “The so-called War on Terror has put serious stress on the workings of the law. National security justifies all sorts of police and state over-reach, and the majority of us accept this. So I wanted to create a character who challenges these assumptions.”
The other two UK entries are novel attempts to appeal to a younger audience – something TV drama desperately needs to do. Gap Year, written by Tom Basden (Fresh Meat) and distributed by Entertainment One, tells the story of a group of young travellers heading off on a three-month trip around Asia.
All3Media International’s Clique, created by Jess Brittain (Skins), is about two best friends drawn into an elite circle of alpha girls led by lecturer Jude McDermid in their first few weeks at university in Edinburgh. “It is about the different ways ambition plays out in young women at university,” says Brittain. “It’s a heightened version of a certain type of uni experience, pulled from my time at uni, then ramped up a few notches into a psychological thriller.”
In terms of the mechanics of the above shows, a few have been set up as coproductions, but for the most part they are centred around a strong central vision that originates in one territory. The impression is that the advisory board favoured shows that seek to tell local stories with universal themes. It’s also noticeable that most of them have a limited series feel to them. While this doesn’t preclude them from returning, it confirms the impression that the scripted sector outside the US is most comfortable in the six-to-10-episode range, working with season-long narratives rather than story-of-the-week projects.
Some of the talent involved is well established: Tykwer, Harbinson, Basden and Price, for example. But the overall list looks like a serious attempt to give buyers some interesting new angles,rather than simply showcasing big MipTV clients.
Public Enemy’s victory last year proves it’s hard to predict which show will come out on top. But the three-pronged winner selection process means the shows will be scrutinised pretty rigorously. Expert judges include Filmlance International MD Lars Blomgren (The Bridge), showrunner Simon Mirren (Versailles), screenwriter Virginie Brac (Cannabis, Spiral), Mediapro head of international content development Ran Tellem (Prisoners of War) and Big Light Productions founder Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files). That’s an impressive line-up of global drama talent with a good eye for spotting winning projects.
Finally, of course, it’s worth asking: is entering worth the effort? Well, the experience of Public Enemy would suggest so. Barely known before MipTV last year, the show was later sold by Banijay Rights to a wide range of broadcasters including TF1 and Sky Atlantic. So the message seems to be that creative recognition at the awards can have a financial pay-off.
The team behind globetrotting new drama Hooten & The Lady want viewers to escape reality with a mix of daring adventures and intriguing characters.
In television, adventure series can be something of a poisoned chalice. As our heroes cross the globe in search of secret treasure, historical remains or ancient relics, only a few have lived up to the popcorn capers enjoyed by Indiana Jones and tomb raider
US series Warehouse 13, Alias and The Librarians have enjoyed success, while the Tia Carrere-fronted Relic Hunter was cancelled after completing its three-season contract. UK drama Bonekickers was buried after just one season.
Now comes Hooten & The Lady, an ambitious new series that follows the adventures of maverick Hooten and fearless historical expert Lady Alexandra Lindo-Parker as they travel the world in search of hidden treasures from the past.
From the mythical Amazonian golden City of Z to the Buddha’s missing scroll and the tomb of Alexander the Great, each episode in the eight-part series follows the duo on a new adventure through jungles, deserts and underground cities.
Michael Landes and Ophelia Lovibond star as Hooten and Lady Alexandra respectively, with support from Jane Seymour, Jessica Hynes, Jonathan Bailey and Shaun Parkes.
“Adventure is seen everywhere as a movie genre because television sometimes struggles with the lighter tone a show like this needs,” explains series creator Tony Jordan. “Luckily, that’s my style of writing, that’s what I do.
“There’s nothing else in this space. That’s what’s exciting about it. I love films like African Queen and Romancing the Stone – but I haven’t got anyone with a hat and a whip!”
Hooten & The Lady is fully funded by broadcaster Sky1 and distributor Sky Vision, which has given Jordan the freedom to push the series to its limits while taking in locations such as Rome, Moscow, Cambodia and Cape Town. It’s a huge undertaking for his production company, Red Planet Pictures, but Jordan says this show represents the kind of television he has always wanted to make.
“I’m a bit fucking fed up with serial killers,” he admits. “I’m fed up with how many different ways you can kill someone and how fucking long you can draw out finding out who killed all those children. I don’t mind that, let’s do that as well, but there was a time when television had both ends of the spectrum. There’s nothing like ‘Hooten.’
“When people have done this genre in the past, I always feel like they’ve tried to make an excuse for it. So they thought, ‘We can’t just do fun or adventure, can we make it supernatural?’ The thing about Hooten & The Lady is we’ve said there’s no supernatural. These are real things they’re looking for – the lost city of Eldorado in the Amazon, the missing scroll of Buddha, the lost tomb of Alexander the Great. All these real things, but with romance and imagination. You want to be with Hooten and the Lady. You just want to spend time with them and watch ordinary people in extraordinary situations.”
With a £2m (US$2.64m) budget for each episode, the show is also filled with an array of dazzling stunts. “We’re killing the actors on a daily basis,” jokes Jordan, who co-writes the series with James Payne, Sarah Phelps, Jeff Povey and Richard Zajdlic. “As a writer and producer, I want to do big shows. I want to set the world on fire.”
Having previously appeared in shows including Upstairs Downstairs, Love Soup and CSI: Miami, Landes has enjoyed “the adventure of a lifetime” starring as Hooten.
“It’s got a bit of the Indiana Jones-style genre and treasure hunting,” he says of the show. “There’s a bit of mystery about Hooten, which is fun. Tony gave me a whole backstory. Audiences want more than banter and we slowly peel away the story. You don’t even know his first name. He’s a mystery man and Tony does a great job to reveal his story.”
Landes jokes that while he’s “no Tom Cruise,” he enjoyed the opportunity to do his own stunts as often as possible – though on one occasion he was left grounded when the script called for a skydive.
“The action stuff is fun but it’s physical and that becomes tiring,” he explains. “Fighting in a helicopter sounds like a great idea but after 10 hours it’s physically demanding. Just the
grind of working all day every day, you have to have stamina.
“But I love to travel so I enjoyed that aspect. We went to the Kremlin and I love Rome so spending a week there was great. I got to travel through the city with a police escort on the back of a Vespa.”
“I watched Michael for years,” Jordan says of his leading man. “He’s this clean-cut American boy and I thought, ‘One day someone’s going get hold of him and mess him up.’ But no one ever did. So when Hooten & The Lady came around, I got hold of him and he’s a revelation. He’s a movie star.”
On Lovibond, the writer adds: “I was always a huge fan of Ophelia – she’s just got this quality about her; she’s really watchable. I think she’s got a touch of Katharine Hepburn about her. And then you put them together and watch Hooten & The Lady and you think you’re watching a movie. The dynamic between them and the way they spark off each other – American alpha male adventurer cut against an aristocrat lady – it’s great, it’s fun.”
The task of creating the world of Hooten & The Lady was handed to Michael Ralph, a long-time collaborator with Jordan who has previously worked on Red Planet series Hustle, Death in Paradise and Dickensian.
Ralph says he was immediately thrilled at the concept of Hooten, which he compares to Saturday-night matinee adventures shown on television during the 1950s and 1960s.
His challenge, however, was to create locations and sets around the world that viewers hadn’t seen before. “That meant we had to go deeper underground and further into the jungle, and higher and farther away,” he says.
“People are willing to embrace that and the genre means you can get away with more and have a rollicking good time. Scale was everything for me on this show – but people also have to believe it. That was the key.”
Alongside location shooting, Cape Town doubled for the desert, the Himalayas and the Egyptian city of Alexandria. For one scene that featured a village found on the edge of cliff, Ralph and his team built the set beside a dam and reservoir in the mountains.
“The characters are larger than life and where they go is more adventurous than ever before,” he says. “I had licence to create locations as big as the characters. Once I did the concept art, people would say, ‘Does that exist?’ and I would say, ‘No, but we can do it.’ People got such a thrill on the set. The actors thought they had walked into a 1940s black-and-white film and expected to see Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart. That’s the joy of it.”
For another scene in which Hooten falls through a rope bridge, a quarry was found to double as a deadly gorge. The steel frame of the bridge was subsequently pre-built and then transported by road to the location 12 hours away from the production base.
“Sometimes we have got to stop people from being too serious and remove them from the concept of realism,” Ralph says of Hooten & The Lady’s escapist ambitions. “It was like doing science-fiction for me because that’s the most exciting form of design. No one knows what it will look like. It’s something I can invent. I had the freedom to create a fantasy. Don’t do it by numbers, do it by heart.”
Working with Ralph was locations manager Luke Longmore, who says the concept of the series “took my breath away.”
“A massive amount of research is part of it,” he says of his role. “Most of the locations I hadn’t been to, but Google becomes your best friend. You research pictures of locations, but you’ve also got to understand the different lifestyles and cultures. You start with the research and then you marry the script to what you’ve researched and then try to find a local location. And once you’ve found it, other elements come in like logistics, permits and catering.
“With Hooten & The Lady, it was very challenging. It’s 90% planning, 10% work. When you’re shooting in the Cambodian and Amazon jungles, you’re dealing with the rain and trying to keep everyone warm and dry. Each location has got its own challenges but we had a fantastic production team and locations team, which made my job much easier.”
In practice, the real locations were used for exterior shots, while matching landmarks were found across South Africa for other scenes.
“Michael Ralph is a master of it,” Longmore continues. “He had seen most of the locations and we would take his lead on it, knowing what he wanted and trying to marry locally in South Africa with what was needed and what he required. Marrying up locations was fun. We’re privileged and blessed to have the whole world in South Africa. You can be in Bangkok or in the jungle.”
Landes adds: “The production value of it was very ambitious and we accomplished a lot during the seven-month shoot. When we call it a globetrotting, treasure-hunting drama, it really is. Alias never left the lot. There’s no faking what we did. It’s going to be a fun adventure.”
As networks invest in drama to define their channel, it’s this fun adventure that Jordan believes could become Sky1’s calling card when it launches tomorrow. “Look at what Mad Men and Breaking Bad did at AMC, and House of Cards at Netflix,” he concludes. “Sky Atlantic has done really well with the HBO vibe but then you think, ‘What’s Sky1?’ I think Sky1 is Hooten & The Lady.”
Everybody in the TV business knows South Korea turns out some great scripted series, but the hotly anticipated launch of Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo on SBS, scheduled for August 29, is especially interesting.
The first reason for this is that the show is based on a Chinese series, which itself is based on a Chinese novel. A time-travel romance that premiered on Hunan Broadcasting System in 2011, the original version tells the story of a 21st century woman who is propelled back in time to China’s Qing Dynasty after a near-fatal accident.
In the Korean version, the heroine will go back to the Goryeo Dynasty. The Chinese industry must be delighted to have exported a hit idea to Korea, having spent much of the past few years being on the receiving end of costly Korean content.
The second reason is that the Korean version of the show has been made with financial backing worth US$10m from NBCUniversal. On previous occasions, NBCU has acquired international rights to Korean dramas, but this is the first time the company has put up funding ahead of production, according to local press reports. All of which suggests increased demand for a brand of drama that was already doing phenomenally well in China and Japan.
The third reason is that Moon Lovers will be aired in China (Youku and Mango TV), Hong Kong (LeTV), Japan (KNTV), Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Indonesia (all Sony’s ONE channel) at the same time as in Korea – an illustration of how day-and-date distribution is now as important in Asia as the rest of the scripted TV world.
The pickup by Sony’s ONE channel is notable, since it shows the extent of Korean drama’s appeal across Asia. ONE has enjoyed a lot of success airing K-drama across Southeast Asia. Recently, it scored strong ratings with Doctors, another SBS show.
The fourth reason why Moon Lovers is interesting is that it is part of a growing trend for Korean dramas to be produced completely before launch. Traditionally, Korean broadcasters have started to air scripted shows before the production has wrapped.
The advantages of this are a) they can get to market more quickly; b) they can make editorial changes as they go; c) they can keep the finale of shows secret from adoring K-drama audiences; and d) they can pull the plug on a show early if it is rating badly, thus saving the cost of production on a number of episodes.
There are, however, two downsides. The first is that this seat-of-the-pants-style production makes quality control more difficult. The second, more importantly, is that it can have a dampening effect on the international distribution value of a show. The reason for this is that many of K-drama’s key export markets – particularly China – are content censors. So broadcasters/platforms there are reluctant or unable to acquire shows until they have seen the entire run of episodes. Given the premium value that now exists for day-and-date distribution, this means Korean content creators need to produce all episodes pre-transmission to generate the maximum international returns on their shows.
There was another example of this in action earlier in 2016. KBS created a drama called Descendants of the Sun, about an army captain who is posted abroad, where he falls in love with a surgeon working with an NGO. The show was a big hit at home, but because it was entirely produced pre-broadcast, it was able to satisfy China’s censors and secure a lucrative deal with iQiyi. The result has been in excess of two billion views on iQiyi.
A final note on Moon Lovers: a second season of the Chinese original aired in 2014. So if the Korean version does well in the next few months there is more material to go back to. The two Chinese series are both 35 episodes, the Korean version is 20.
Separately, Sky Atlantic/Canal+ drama The Last Panthers recently finished airing on Sundance Channel in the US. As in the UK, it didn’t attract especially good ratings, finishing with around 38,000 viewers (having started its run at the 60-70,000 mark).
Nevertheless, the Haut et Court TV/Warp Films production has done pretty well in distribution for StudioCanal and Sky Vision, which share the international sales job. Today, for example, it was revealed that the six-part crime series has been acquired by DirecTV Latin America, the leading satellite television provider in the region.
Commenting on the deal, Willard Tressel, general manager of OnDirecTV, said: “We’re thrilled to bring The Last Panthers exclusively to our subscribers. The producers have brought together an amazing team of talented people to create this gripping series that feels closer to cinema than to television.”
This deal isn’t a fluke either. According to StudioCanal and Sky Vision, the show has sold to 122 territories in total. Other broadcasters to have come on board include SBS Australia, HBO Nordics and Fox Networks’ Crime channels in Eastern Europe.
The question, of course, is why buy a show that only attracted 38,000 viewers in a market of 116 million TV households? Well, it could be down to price or a favourable agreement in terms of windowing (box sets and so on). But, increasingly, pay TV platforms and channels also see value in securing shows that have achieved a certain amount of critical acclaim.
The Last Panthers hasn’t won any high-profile awards yet but it is on a few shortlists. And it does feature an excellent cast (Samantha Morton, Tahar Rahim, Goran Bogdan and John Hurt, for example). Factors like these – not to mention the fact it was written by the in-demand Jack Thorne – have an in-built brand value that can make a subscription service stand out in the eyes of potential and existing customers.
In other words, it’s almost possible to view the acquisition rights fee you pay as a kind of marketing investment in your business.
Of course, this thesis only works up to a point. At a certain stage, shows have to deliver audiences too. There was a good indicator of this point this week with the news that Participant Media is shutting down its cable channel Pivot.
Maybe this is the first indicator that the US scripted TV market is heading towards a contraction, since it removes a potential buyer from the market. In a neat link back to Sky Vision, Pivot aired the company’s Arctic thriller Fortitude in 2015. This means the distributor will now have to try to find a different home for the show’s second season.
In other news this week, USA Network has ordered a third season of its critically acclaimed hacker drama Mr Robot.
Elsewhere, Lifetime is piloting A Midsummer’s Nightmare, a psychological thriller based loosely on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. If the show goes to series and is successful, the idea is to create an anthology-style scripted franchise in which each new season is a contemporary horror story based on a Shakespeare play.
There is no news yet on what title might come next but how about: MacDeath, otHELLo, The Vampest, Thirteenth Night, The Maiming of the Shrew, The Comedy of Terrors or All’s Well That Ends in Hell…?
Let’s start this week by congratulating this year’s Oscar-winning writers.
The prize for Best Original Screenplay went to Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy for Spotlight, a film about The Boston Globe’s investigation into child sex abuse by Roman Catholic priests. Meanwhile, Best Adapted Screenplay was claimed by Adam McKay and Charles Randolph for their financial comedy-drama The Big Short, based on the best-selling non-fiction book by Michael Lewis.
Singer’s credits to date have pretty much all been in TV and include The West Wing, Law & Order and Lie to Me.
McCarthy is more of an actor/writer/director type. Although he has acted in TV series (such as The Wire, Boston Public and Law & Order), his writing has generally been in the film arena. High-profile credits include Up, with Bob Peterson and Pete Docter, and Million Dollar Arm. He was also nominated in the director category for Spotlight.
Turning to The Big Short duo, Adam McKay is a director, producer, screenwriter, comedian and actor who has a long-standing creative partnership with Will Ferrell, with whom he usually writes films. His TV credits include two seasons as head writer on NBC’s acclaimed sketch comedy series Saturday Night Live.
Randolph, meanwhile, is a writer/producer whose credits include The Life of David Gale, The Interpreter and Love & Other Drugs. Randolph was also the writer of an ABC drama pilot called Exposed, based upon the books by best-selling Swedish author Liza Marklund. This show was doing the rounds in 2014 with a lot of high-profile acting talent attached but has since gone pretty quiet.
Outside the Oscars, the big writing story of the week is that the new showrunners for season five of Netflix’s House of Cards have been named. They are Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese, who have both been working on the drama since season three.
Gibson’s credits to date cover various media. She has written plays including Placebo, What Rhymes with America, This, Suitcase or Those that Resemble Flies from a Distance and Brooklyn Bridge. She has taught playwriting at Princeton University and is an alumnus of the Yale School of Drama. She wrote the film All is Bright (Tribeca Film Festival). In addition to House of Cards, her television work includes The Americans (FX), for which she received a Writers’ Guild Awards nomination.
Pugliese’s work in theatre includes Aven’U Boys, The King of Connecticut, The Talk, The Alarm, The Democracy Project, The Summer Winds, Hope is the Thing with Feathers and KAOS. His TV credits include Homicide, for which he won a Writers’ Guild Award, Law & Order, Borgias and Copper. Film credits include Shot in the Heart, Undefeated and the upcoming Border Crossing. Pugliese is associate professor of TV writing at the Columbia University Graduate Film Department and is the co-director of the television writing programme at La Femis in Paris.
Gibson and Pugliese replace Beau Willimon, whose last series as showrunner of House of Cards will be released on this Friday. They received a polite vote of approval from star and executive producer Kevin Spacey, who said: “I welcome Frank and Melissa in their new roles on House of Cards and look forward to collaborating with them and our creative team on season five.”
Elsewhere, CBS has announced that it’s renewing its procedural juggernaut NCIS for another two seasons. Already in season 13, the show regularly draws an audience of 20 million (including time-shifted viewing) – making it one of the top programmes in the US. It is also licensed to around 200 countries worldwide.
CBS Entertainment president Glen Geller said: “It’s extraordinary that in its 13th season and with more than 300 episodes to its credit, NCIS continues to excel at such a high level on a global scale. It is testimony to an amazing cast, led on and off the screen by the exceptional Mark Harmon, for skillfully bringing this appealing team of heroes to life; and to Gary Glasberg and his writers for crafting compelling stories that feature NCIS’s blend of mystery, quirk, drama and comedy every single week.”
As Geller says, the success of the show is inextricably linked with the involvement of Harmon, its star and executive producer, and Glasberg, who heads the writing team on NCIS and was also the creator of NCIS: New Orleans.
Glasberg’s career actually began on animated shows such as Rugrats before progressing via series such as Crossing Jordan, Bones and The Mentalist. His name first popped up as a writer in the middle of NCIS season seven (2009-10). Starting from season eight, he took on the responsibility of writing the first and last episode of each season and also penning another two or three episodes per run. He also wrote the set-up episodes for NCIS: New Orleans but has since handed primary writing duties to a separate team. In terms of influences, Glasberg is reported to be a big fan of TV series M*A*S*H.
In the UK, meanwhile, Sky Vision, the distribution and production arm of Sky, has signed a three-script development deal with UK-based indie producer Merman. Sky will have first-look access to projects from Merman, which was founded in 2014 by Sharon Horgan and Clelia Mountford, plus the option to distribute.
While Mountford is a producer, Horgan has established herself as an in-demand actor, writer and director. Her key credits in the UK are Pulling and Catastrophe, though she is also making a name for herself in the US. After Pulling went to pilot in the US, she created a series for HBO called Divorce. Starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Thomas Hayden Church, Divorce is due to premier in 2016.
Kylie Munnich, Sky Vision director of drama and comedy, said Merman “is a creative force to be reckoned with. Its high-quality scripts attract some of the industry’s leading names and we’re excited to be working with them on future projects.”
On a less happy note, Amazon will not be renewing Mad Dogs, which was adapted for the platform by Shawn Ryan from the UK version of the show that aired on Sky1 in 2011.
Ryan worked with the UK show’s creator Cris Cole on the Amazon version, which consisted of 10 episodes. Ryan wrote on Twitter that he and Cole “laid out a story for season two we believed in. Ultimately, Amazon didn’t want to make that story and we didn’t want to make the kind of story they wanted us to make, so…”
Looking for Victorian London? Try Dublin. Or perhaps you’re after the kind of quintessentially Italian setting one can only find in Prague? From tax credits to geography and architecture, DQ examines the factors far beyond plotlines that play a part in selecting drama production locations.
Jetting around the world in search of locations was once the domain of feature-film producers. But it is now increasingly common for high-end TV productions to scour the globe for the right backdrops to their stories.
A key reason for this is the rise of tax incentives. With a growing number of countries and regions introducing financial sweeteners to attract film and TV drama, producers now have an array of opportunities to positively impact their budgets, either by controlling costs or putting more value on screen.
Most scripted TV executives agree, however, that the pursuit of tax incentives shouldn’t be allowed to dictate the location decision-making process.
“I’ve been shooting around the world for 35 years so I know the pros and cons of tax incentives,” says Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik, “and the bottom line is it’s just one factor among many. The appeal of tax breaks has to be balanced with the creative needs of the project and the logistical set-up you find when you get to the other end.”
He cites hit Starz series Power as “a show that just had to be made in New York. We could probably have replicated New York in Toronto but I don’t think we would have got the authenticity that makes the show stand out.”
However, the network opted for a more exotic location for pirate drama Black Sails (pictured top), which shoots in Cape Town and will launch its third season in the US on January 23, 2016.
Zlotnik explains: “South Africa is a world-class location. You don’t just get tax incentives, you get a fantastic crew base and superb exterior locations. There is a construction team that knows how to build a ship and a deep pool of actors. In Black Sails, the second and third tiers of actors are great, which is something you wouldn’t get in every location. Details like that can have a real impact on whether the audience engages with a show.”
Patrick Irwin, executive producer and co-chairman at Far Moor, a coproduction specialist, takes a similar line. “I don’t think any producer would choose to shoot in a country simply to achieve tax breaks without considering the other factors,” he says. “They may well decide that the benefit from tax credits is outweighed, either by the creative sacrifices required or the additional logistical challenges, such as travel. Add to that the complications of meeting treaty and tax credit requirements and twin production bases in different countries, which means additional legal and potential collection agreements.”
The notion that tax incentives can be undermined by other financial factors is a common talking point. Aside from travel and accommodation costs, for example, the tax incentive premium can quickly dissolve if you need to bring in specialist equipment or if there are unanticipated production delays because of inexperienced or inefficient crews. This scenario is particularly common when countries have only recently introduced their tax incentives and are, as yet, unproven as filming locations.
“We took one of the first big drama productions, Parade’s End, into Belgium to take advantage of tax incentives,” recalls Ben Donald, another coproduction specialist who splits his time between working for BBC Worldwide and his own indie start-up Cosmopolitan Pictures. “While the shoot went very well, there was a lot of logistical running around. We found ourselves using several locations and flying in people we hadn’t expected to call on.”
There’s also “a human side to production that needs to be taken into account,” says Donald. “There is often an impulse among actors and other key talent to stay at home, which needs to be considered. It’s possible you will get a better end result if they are at home rather than in some temporary set-up.”
Having said that, it’s crystal clear tax incentives do influence location decision-making. California’s loss of film and TV work to Louisiana, Georgia, New York and Canada is a classic example of tax incentives redirecting work to other production centres. The UK has similarly lost out to Belgium, Ireland, Eastern Europe and South Africa over the years.
A case in point is Ripper Street, a BBC drama that recreates Victorian London in Dublin. It’s no surprise then that both California and the UK, despite the inherent strength of their infrastructures, have had to improve their own tax incentive schemes in order to reverse the runaway production trend of recent years.
Oliver Bachert, Beta Film’s senior VP for international sales and acquisition, says that in most cases there doesn’t need to be a conflict between creative and commercial considerations. “The economics of drama production mean you have to be realistic. But often we are in a position where the creative and financial requirements fall in line. Sometimes we can get the look we want in Eastern Europe at a lower price than we would get in Western Europe, so it makes sense to do that – especially when you’re dealing with places like Prague, in the Czech Republic, where the production infrastructure is excellent.”
Beta is currently involved in a US$17m miniseries called Maximilian that will shoot across Germany, Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic, thus achieving the right mix of authenticity and efficiency. Indeed, Bachert says there are occasions with period pieces “when you can find better examples of the locations or buildings you want in foreign territories than where the story is set. With Borgias, an Italy-based story, we shot some of the production in Prague because it had the renaissance backdrop required.”
Donald endorses this point: “We’re working on a new production of Maigret with Rowan Atkinson. Although it is set in 1950s France, some of it is being shot in Budapest, Hungary. Clearly there are financial benefits to this, but it’s not always easy to shoot in cities like Paris because of the permit rules and because of the way the character of the city has changed.”
Most producers start with the requirements of the story and go from there. As FremantleMedia Australia director of drama Jo Porter explains: “There’s always a point at the beginning of the process where you’ll pass on some projects because you just know the location choices inherent in the story would be too expensive. But after you get into development there are usually a few options for where you might produce a show. It’s at this point you start weighing up the best alternatives.”
Not surprisingly, being in Australia makes a difference. “There are no hard and fast rules, but it’s inevitable that where you are based plays into your decision-making,” says Porter. “With many of our projects, the question for us is about which part of Australia offers the best creative and financial solution – not whether we should take the production to another country.”
However, Porter adds that there are times when the story dictates that you go abroad: “Advances in technology like green-screen and VFX have really helped. But we recently made a TV movie biopic for Network Ten called Mary: The Making of a Princess, about a local woman who married a Danish prince. For the sake of authenticity we had to go to Copenhagen. There’s only a limited amount you can achieve with Australia’s architecture and climate – though we have made it snow in Sydney.”
Exchange rates are another factor that Porter says can make a difference: “Australia has everything you could possibly need to handle an incoming production, but the strength of the Australian dollar has had a negative impact. Now, though, the currency has dropped enough that I think you might start to see it coming back onto producers’ radars.”
Of course, not all locations are in direct competition with each other. “There’s some overlap,” says Donald, “but if you’re looking for action-adventure backdrops then you probably think first about South Africa (which has hosted series like Left Bank’s Strike Back). And if it’s a biblical epic then you’re swaying towards places like Malta or Morocco. As for Eastern Europe, it gives you another set of urban and rural options.”
Morocco is an interesting case, because it continues to attract big-budget TV series such as HBO’s Game of Thrones, BBC2’s The Honourable Woman, Spike TV’s Tut, Fox’s Homeland and NBC’s AD: The Bible Continues – despite having no tax incentive. With superb standing sets at Ouarzazate in the south, it has doubled for locations like Iran, Egypt, Somalia and Israel, among others.
Fans of Morocco cite a variety of factors for the country’s popularity, including the quality of the light, experienced crews, low production costs, political stability and a liberal attitude to Western filmmakers. But it remains to be seen whether the country can persist with its current stance on tax incentives.
With the UAE, Jordan, South Africa, Malta and Turkey all able to replicate some of Morocco’s landscapes, it may soon find itself having to join the increasing number of countries adopting incentives. South Africa, for example, is hosting ITV’s new four-part drama Tutankhamun, in which it will double for Egypt. Although usually thought of as a lush, fertile land, South Africa also doubled for Pakistan in Homeland and Afghanistan in Our Girl.
Echoing Porter’s point about location proximity, most US TV drama producers tend to make decisions about which US state to base their productions in (or whether to go north to Canada).
Gene Stein, the former CEO of Sonar Entertainment, says: “We looked at a number of southern US states before we located Sonar’s new series South of Hell in Charleston, South Carolina. We needed a beautiful city to be the backdrop for a southern gothic story and it fit the bill perfectly. The fact there was a good financial package also played into the final decision.”
However, Stein says the US market’s current drive towards high-end drama is encouraging producers to make ambitious decisions about locations. “With the increasing number of distinctive dramas, there’s a hunger for great locations. Sonar recently shot Shannara for MTV in New Zealand. That’s a massive show that demanded a striking visual approach. So when you combined New Zealand’s beautiful locations with its tax incentives and the quality of its craftsmanship, it all made sense. And we’ve come out with a fantastic show.”
This endorsement of New Zealand, which is a prime location for European and US shoots in winter because it is in the southern hemisphere, is echoed by Starz’ Zlotnik, who says film franchises like Lord of the Rings and Avatar helped establish a high degree of technical expertise and led to the premium cable network’s decision to film Ash vs Evil Dead there.
In addition, Zlotnik says there is a robust relationship between the US and New Zealand thanks to the work done by Ash vs Evil Dead producer Rob Tapert, who first started bringing productions like Hercules and Xena: Warrior Princess to NZ in the 1980 and 1990s. “Having someone like Rob involved provides you with the security you need when shooting on location,” he explains. As a general rule, having a reliable production services company in the market can be a big influence when weighing up the relative merits of locations.
Another key point to understand about location decision-making is that the market is evolving all the time, adds Playground Entertainment founder and CEO Colin Callender. “No producer ever says they have enough money, so they’re always looking for way to secure a financial advantage that can improve the end result,” he says. “But things can change suddenly. With Wolf Hall we were looking at Belgium when the UK introduced its new tax credits. After that we knew we could afford to make the show in the UK and the decision became self-evident.”
There’s no question that the UK is a popular choice right now. Far Moor’s Irwin says: “Thanks to the additional tax credits, our first choice would always be to try to shoot domestically with potential enhancement from regional incentives such as Northern Ireland Screen (NIS) or Screen Yorkshire, unless there is an obvious creative rationale to shoot overseas. We’ve filmed numerous productions in Belfast, Northern Ireland, most recently with the ITV drama The Frankenstein Chronicles, which is produced by Rainmark Films. We have also filmed two seasons of BBC2 series The Fall in Northern Ireland and are about to start prep on the third. We’ve found the crew in Northern Ireland to be highly skilled and the NIS funding adds to the appeal.”
One exception to Far Moor’s UK-centric approach was BBC1 period fantasy Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which was partly filmed in Canada and Croatia. “The reason behind this was a combination of tax credit benefits of Canadian coproduction and the locations on offer. We added Croatia for its unspoilt locations, which were ideal for doubling as Waterloo and Venice; this couldn’t be achieved in the coproducing countries.”
While the Czech Republic and Hungary tend to be the preferred locations in Eastern Europe, they are facing increased competition within the region. The BBC’s new epic interpretation of the novel War and Peace has been shooting in Lithuania, where it benefited from a 20% filming incentive, while History’s 2012 miniseries Hatfields & McCoys recreated Appalachia in Romania. Rising star Croatia, which introduced a 20% tax credit in 2011, also secured work from Game of Thrones and Beta Film-distributed Winnetou, a Western adventure based on the books by German author Karl May.
Looking at the global map, you definitely get a sense of location clustering – rather like the way you see estate agents next to each other on the high street. The southern US states and Eastern Europe are the best examples. But it’s noteworthy that the Republic of Ireland also forms part of a popular block with the British mainland and Northern Ireland.
Aside from Ripper Street, titles to have been based there include Penny Dreadful, Vikings and The Tudors. In part, this is down to tax incentives and crew quality, but it is also significant that the ROI has two impressive studio complexes, Ardmore and Ashford. Studios are also a key factor in the popularity of territories such as the US, Canada, UK, Germany, South Africa and Australia.
For all the reasons outlined above, producers tend to be slightly conservative when choosing locations, preferring to go with tried and tested areas ahead of unused ones. But there are a few places starting to attract interest as a result of new tax incentives. FM’s Porter says: “We are starting to look at producing drama that has more of an international profile to it, and as we do we are thinking about Malaysia and Singapore, both of which are increasingly important production centres.”
Malaysia, with its 25% production incentive and the recent launch of Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia Studios, has already managed to lure Netflix original series Marco Polo and Channel 4 returning series Indian Summers to its shores. With the latter set against the backdrop of British rule in India, producer New Pictures initially looked at Simla in that country, but found it was too built up.
It also considered Sri Lanka, but was dissuaded by the fact that Channel 4 News had recently aired an investigation into alleged Sri Lankan war crimes, thus putting a strain on UK/Sri Lankan relationships.
Indian Summers, commissioned for a second season in 2016, was shot on Penang Island in north Malaysia. At the 2014 C21 International Drama Summit, director Anand Tucker described how “we had to recreate 1930s India and the Raj in the country. My job in setting up the show was also about creating the infrastructure. The most any local crews had done were a couple of movies or commercials, so it was also about training them to manage a 160- or 170-day shoot.”
While this can seem like a lot of effort up front, it is something executives at the distribution end of the process often value. Sky Vision CEO Jane Millichip points to productions like Fortitude (shot in Iceland) and The Last Panthers (shot in London, Marseilles, Belgrade and Montenegro). “Buyers like the sense of breadth and scale locations bring,” she says.
Joel Denton, MD of international content sales and partnerships at A+E Networks, echoes Millichip’s view: “We’d always look at locations as a marketing tool, maybe organising trips for broadcasters to see the production.”
So what does the future hold for location-based production? Improvements in green-screen technology suggest more productions could stay closer to home. But this needs to be balanced against growing competition among channels, which encourages increasingly bold location choices.
Inevitably some countries and regions will fall off the locations map as they come to the conclusion that their tax incentives are not having much of an impact in attracting work. But others will always take their place.
Italy, for example, has seen a resurgence in film activity following the decision to introduce a tax credit in 2009 – and it’s not far-fetched to think TV productions may follow. Colombia has also seen an upturn since introducing its own incentive scheme in 2013. With Turkey talking about something similar, it seems producers with itchy feet can continue to scour the globe for the perfect backdrop.
Ahead of The Last Panthers’ world premiere at Mipcom in Cannes this week, Michael Pickard discovers there’s much more to the drama than its classic jewellery-heist plotline suggests.
From the opening scenes featuring a daring diamond heist, The Last Panthers appears to carry all the hallmarks of a classic crime caper.
But that’s where the pretence ends, as viewers are plunged into a pan-European thriller set across three countries and portrayed in three languages.
Based on real events, the story begins with a robbery that looks to be the work of the notorious Pink Panthers gang, but the inadvertent death of a little girl sets off a chain of events across Europe that places British insurance loss adjuster (Samantha Morton), her nefarious boss (John Hurt), a French-Algerian cop (Tahar Rahim) and a Serbian gang member (Goran Bogdan) on a dangerous collision course.
Commissioned by Sky in the UK and France’s Canal+, The Last Panthers is written by Jack Thorne, based on an idea by Jean-Alain Laban and Jérôme Pierrat. It is produced by Haut et Court TV and Warp Films, and distributed by Sky Vision and StudioCanal.
If the plot seems misleading from the start, that was entirely the intention of the producers, who wanted to create a layered and far-reaching drama in which the action spans countries and decades.
Warp Films executive producer Peter Carlton says: “Our deliberate idea was to start with a classic crime story – a heist – and look at the ripples that go outwards and backwards. Through these three characters it takes you into a crime thriller with action and tense drama sequences in each episode but it also becomes more and more a personal drama and a tragedy around those three characters.
“The big attraction for us was not a crime series but using the crime to take us into another place. But if you do lure people in with a crime, you can’t forget that completely. You have to keep the audience with you and if you put a diamond heist at the front of something that turns into a very worthy, dull, wordy political drama, you’re not going to get thanked and no one’s going to follow you. You have to deliver on that promise of excitement and the thriller element while also bringing the audience with you through every twist and turn.”
Haut et Court’s Caroline Benjo, who also exec produces the six-hour series, adds: “We want to tease the viewer because there’s something very smart and sophisticated about TV audiences and this is where we want to go.
“The frustration and teasing is very important. Audiences want to be brought to something they don’t get all at once. Our world is extremely complex and this is what’s interesting. Our characters are going through a complex world and they intimate an inner world that’s even more complicated. You have to have a certain level of entertainment – it’s very action driven. There’s one quite spectacular action sequence in each episode but it was very important to link these to the story and the characters’ emotional trajectory.”
Benjo was approached by Pierrat and Laban with an idea for a film about the Pink Panthers, but she quickly identified that their story could go much deeper as a television miniseries. She brought Carlton on board with Warp as a coproduction partner, before Canal+ and Sky both committed to the series. Thorne was then brought in to write the script.
Carlton, who has worked with Thorne before on series such as Channel 4’s This is England, says the writer’s distinctive voice, coupled with his knowledge of European politics, made him a standout candidate for the job.
“Knowing we were making a big European tragedy, we needed a writer who could handle big emotion on a big canvas,” he says. “A lot of British writers sare a bit shy and embarrassed by big emotion and I knew from working with Jack on This is England that this wasn’t the case with him. Although this is a very different show, it’s a melodrama in the best sense of the word.
“He’s a fearless writer, he masters genre and has a distinctive voice, can write sophisticated politics and isn’t scared of big emotions. So when we proposed it to Jack, he bit our hands off.”
Bringing Thorne on board meant The Last Panthers had a writer who would put together a tightly scripted, extremely focused story across six episodes. There will be no vague closing scene that leaves things open for a second season.
“It’s not designed to be a returning series,” says Carlton. “We felt six episodes was the right length for the story. There’s a lot of stuff that didn’t get put into it but I don’t think we’d go back to the Panthers again. However, we did become fascinated by this way of storytelling: that one event brings together two or three different destinies, allowing you to explore backwards and forwards at the same time.
“So Jack, Johan (Renck, the director) and us are sitting down and talking about new stories. Whether what comes out of that process feels like The Return of the Last Panthers, The Last something else or something completely different, it’s always tempting to follow your success – but we haven’t had any success yet. There’s rich creative ground but it’s quite hard to see what exactly what that is at the moment or what it might turn into.”
As European coproductions become more commonplace, Benjo says they are still “one of the trickiest things” to do, adding that it was integral to the project that everyone shared the same vision for the series.
“Not only was there a shared ambition and approach between us and Haut et Court but we also have, in Canal+ and Sky, an aspiration, an ambition and a desire for a certain type of programme that was very similar,” Carlton explains. “In detail there were differences but we never had either us as producers or them as broadcasters pulling in different directions.
“They wanted something ambitious, something with layers, that on the one hand has excitement and is a thriller but underneath it is finely driven more by character and emotion. We all agreed it was going to be pan-European, and it needed some big names and great actors to carry it and keep it as authentic as possible. We agreed on day one that we would shoot in certain countries and in original languages and we never varied from it. That isn’t always the case.”
The series takes place in London, Marseille and Belgrade and, as such, the action is filmed in English, French and Serbian. Above any other challenge facing the €20m (US$22.4m) production, Benjo says the multi-lingual approach to The Last Panthers was the biggest obstacle.
“The Last Panthers is spoken in the language of the protagonist,” she says. “But when they’re together, the common language is English. So we had to do enormous work on the adaptation because Jack writes in English so we had to do very precise work to turn it into French and Serbian. We also had two broadcasters with their own sensitivities. It was interesting because we tried to meet our broadcasters’ needs as much as possible without going against the project and it’s almost like working for the UN. You are constantly peacekeeping, trying to keep everything as smooth as possible.”
The size of the production budget, coming in at more than €3m per episode, also led to conversations about how best to use it. Benjo adds: “We always put all our money on screen because if we don’t, there’s no more money coming back.
“Everyone’s talking about feature film versus TV production. What’s happening in TV production now is that it’s not ‘how can we make as much money as possible?,’ it’s ‘how can we put all the money on screen?’ And ‘how can we have production values that will be mind-blowing for the people who watch?’ Here I think we have found that level. Everything is filmed in real countries, the action scenes are quite spectacular and it’s very well crafted. It’s definitely a beautiful-looking series.”