Russian-made, English-language drama Mata Hari tells the true story of Margaret Zelle, a woman of humble origins who escaped family tragedy and a loveless marriage to become an infamous exotic dancer, courtesan and spy.
French actor Vahina Giocante reflects on playing this real-life “fantasy” figure, the audition process to win the role and why she feels at home when she’s on set.
Mata Hari is produced by Star Media for Channel One Russia and Ukraine’s Inter and is distributed by Red Arrow International.
There is an inexorability about the way the TV drama business is heading. From the viewer’s perspective, the emergence of large-screen HD/4K TVs, combined with high subscription fees, creates an expectation that broadcasters and platforms will deliver great shows.
For those broadcasters and platforms, this puts a stronger emphasis than ever on the pursuit of high-profile and high-quality writing, acting and producing talent. But securing that kind of talent costs a lot of money, which means subscription fees need to rise.
And so the creative arms race escalates, with the companies in charge of content delivery forced to make bolder and bolder decisions. In a way, it’s similar to what has happened with sports rights.
While the big draw with any drama is its cast, it’s noticeable that the track record of writers is also becoming more important – not just in satisfying commissioning editors, but also as a way of appealing to audiences.
This is why novelists like Harlan Coben, Michael Connelly and Jo Nesbø have become such a focal point. While most TV writers don’t have a public profile (because of the collaborative nature of the TV process), novelists are often respected brands – with loyal fans who follow their every move.
Against that backdrop, this week saw AT&T-backed SVoD platform Fullscreen unveil a raft of new content including a show directed and written by Bret Easton Ellis – the enfant terrible of contemporary fiction, known for cult novels like Less Than Zero, Rules of Attraction and, most famously, American Psycho.
The new show, called The Deleted, focuses on the disappearance of three seemingly unconnected people from LA. The occurrence triggers a collective paranoia among a group of young people, all of whom escaped from a cult several years previously.
The project is a new departure for Ellis. Although he has tried his hand at screenwriting movies, such as The Canyons and The Informers, this is his first gig as a director. “It’s going push some boundaries and it’s definitely going to be the darkest of our original shows,” said Fullscreen CEO George Strompolos.
“We created a new kind of entertainment experience which merges the things we love about premium content and social media. We’re building it for an audience we know and love – a social-first, mobile-first generation. The future of media is going to look more like what we’re doing than what we’ve seen over the past several decades.”
Writers celebrating this week include Russell T Davies, who has just won the Bafta TV Craft Drama Writer Award for his 2015 drama serial Cucumber. Davies edged out a formidable line-up of rivals to secure the award, including Mike Bartlett (Doctor Foster), Peter Straughan (Wolf Hall) and Neil Cross (Luther).
Cucumber was part of a trilogy of dramas for Channel 4 that also included Tofu and Banana. Loosely described as a sequel to Davies’ iconic 1999 series Queer as Folk, it focused on a middle-aged gay man (Henry) who has to adapt to sudden change after a disastrous date night with his boyfriend of nine years.
Although the emphasis of the story was on the social and emotional challenges faced by gay men, critic Mark Lawson, writing in the Guardian, said the show had a more universal theme: “The broader genre of respectability meltdown, as Henry (the central character) is accelerated from smug dullness to scenes featuring police intervention, furious colleagues and social humiliation.”
Other Bafta winners included Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan for their hit comedy Catastrophe (Channel 4). There was also a breakthrough award for actor/writer Michaela Coel, creator of fellow Channel 4 sitcom Chewing Gum. All in all, that made it a good night for Channel 4 in terms of its writing credentials.
Other writers in the news include Scott Shepherd, who has been signed up by Televisa US to pen a 10-part sci-fi thriller. The Seventh Day is the Mexican media group’s second foray into English-language content after Duality, starring Dougray Scott.
The series is based on Shepherd’s serialised novel of the same name. Treading a well-worn furrow, it centres on one of the few people left unharmed when most of humanity is wiped out.
Shepherd, who is actually a writer/producer, has a shopping list of writing credits that date back to Murder She Wrote and Miami Vice in the 1980s and 1990s. More recently, he executive produced Haven and The Dead Zone – while also contributing to the writing efforts.
For The Seventh Day, he will share writing and showrunning duties with Cindy McCreery, who also wrote on Haven. Commenting on the new project, which will be shot in Mexico, Televisa USA head of production and distribution Chris Philip said: “Scott and Cindy are once again weaving gripping stories into compelling TV. Their masterful tales fit perfectly with the wide array of sets and terrain that Televisa has to offer in Mexico, where we plan to shoot all of the series we greenlight with our pioneering production and distribution venture.”
As the expansion of Televisa illustrates, one of the most exciting developments in the international drama business is the formation of new alliances. Another interesting example of this is the Russian drama Mata Hari, based on the life of the famous female spy/courtesan. The show has been produced by Star Media in Russia and will be distributed internationally by Red Arrow International, starting at Mipcom in October.
Red Arrow International MD Henrik Pabst said: “The scale and quality of this ambitious new drama is truly impressive and marks a real step change in the international ambitions of the Russian production sector.”
Red Arrow will distribute an English-language version of the show, which stars the likes of Christopher Lambert (Highlander), John Corbett (My Big Fat Greek Wedding), Rade Serbedzija (X-Men: First Class) and Rutger Hauer (Batman Begins, Blade Runner), plus French actress Vahina Giocante (The Libertine) in the title role.
The series, which is directed by Dennis Berry (Highlander, Stargate SG-1) and Julius Berg, recently completed filming in Lisbon and St Petersburg, and will air on Russian state network Channel One and Ukraine’s Inter later this year.
It has been written by Igor Ter-Karapetov and Oleg Kirillov. Of the two, Ter-Karapetov appears to have the more established track record, having penned numerous series and miniseries over the last few years. Credits include spy thriller Smert shpionam, Udarnaya volna and Ubit Stalina, a Second World War drama about a plot by the Germans to kill Joseph Stalin. The latter also contains a spy component, which suggest Ter-Karapetov is the perfect writer to tackle another period espionage story.