Tag Archives: Steve Matthews

Wake-up call

A woman battles to uncover the truth about her husband’s disappearance in HBO Europe’s latest Czech drama, Bez Vědomi (The Sleepers), an espionage thriller set in 1980s communist Czechoslovakia.

Along a bustling West London road, a discreet, narrow passageway leads to a quiet, pretty street with flowerpots standing on the cobbled surface outside a row of terraced houses.

Cars also line the road – a Triumph, Mercedes and a blue Mini – but their vintage gives away the fact that this setting is not from the present day but the 1980s, when change is in the air across Europe amid the final days of the Cold War.

A camera team is set up outside one doorway as a woman wearing a blue jumper, red tracksuit bottoms and headphones enters the frame, jogging towards them from one end of the street, greeting a passing postman and entering the house. It’s a small, fairly insignificant moment but it sets the scene for HBO Europe’s Czech drama Bez Vědomi (The Sleepers).

The jogging character is Marie (Tatiana Pauhofová), who together with her political dissident husband, Viktor (Martin Myšička), fled communist Czechoslovakia 12 years ago. Now living in London in October 1989, they plan to take advantage of an amnesty and return to their home country.

Soon after they arrive, however, they are hit by a car – and when Marie wakes, her husband has disappeared and no one knows anything about him. In a country that still considers Viktor an enemy and one that Marie no longer understands, she faces the biggest challenge of her life to uncover what has happened to him.

The Sleepers is set in 1989 Czechoslovakia

Three days of filming in London cap an 87-day shoot for the series, which is mostly set and filmed in Prague. A skeleton team of producer Tereza Polachova, director Ivan Zachariáš, DOP Jan Velický and star Pauhofová have made the short trip to the UK, where they are working with a local crew to capture the exterior scenes that are needed to round out the production.

Written by debut TV screenwriter Ondrej Gabriel, The Sleepers is set against the backdrop of the turbulent political changes that swept across Czechoslovakia at the time, with the six-part series launching this November to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution that brought about the fall of the communist regime.

“Andrej is an old buddy. I’ve known him since 1991, as we were schoolmates,” says HBO executive producer Polachova. “He brought this story to us and I was immediately intrigued by it and wanted to develop it with him. Spy dramas are not common in Central Europe, so it was the right time to develop this. That was ages ago, and now finally we are shooting.”

But while espionage thrillers more commonly see a spy from elsewhere sent on a mission in this region, HBO’s creative team thought The Sleepers could provide a fresh take on the genre. “We’re so used to traditional shows where [John le Carré character] George Smiley and the Russians use Central Europe as a chess board to move people around,” says HBO VP and fellow executive producer Steve Matthews. “One of the first thoughts we had was, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to see that story from the inside of one of those territories, rather than the outside?’ That was one of the concepts from the start.

“There’s a definite Central European flavour to it. It’s a drama and it’s got these great human stories, but it did always require the mechanism of a spy story. The thing we learned after about a year was, ‘This is quite hard, isn’t it?’ because it’s all agents, double agents and triple agents. You really see what amazing plotters the Le Carrés [and other spy novelists] are.”

Tatiana Pauhofová had to learn the violin for her role as Marie

Produced with ETAMP Film, The Sleepers is the latest Czech series from HBO Europe, following Pustina (Wasteland), which was also directed by Zachariáš, and Agnieszka Holland’s Burning Bush, in which Prague history student Jan Palach sets himself on fire in protest against the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. But The Sleepers has proven to be the toughest production yet, owing to its familiar setting.

“Because the events of Burning Bush take place in 1968, many people do not remember that time anymore,” says Polachova. “But with this set in 1989, people do remember it and they relate to that period of time easier than they do to the 1960s. That’s why it was really important to stay as precise as possible in terms of the historical setting.”

That setting is perhaps more familiar now as a result of the ongoing tensions between Europe, the US and Russia that threaten to spill into a Cold War 2.0. Coupled with the rise of state propaganda and fake news, “something we never thought would be part of our lives again is here,” Polachova continues. “It’s a period piece but it’s actually happening now, and it’s not just a spy drama because it’s not told through a spy’s eyes. We’re following the story of a woman who is a normal citizen and, by accident, she finds herself in a world she doesn’t really understand.”

That woman is Marie, played by Pauhofová, who sees an opportunity to return home to Czechoslovakia and be reunited with her relatives. “Or at least she thinks it’s her home,” the actor tells DQ between takes on set. “When she goes back, she realises it’s not her home anymore. Back then, the difference between the socialist country Czechoslovakia and a country of freedom was big.

“Then her husband disappears, so it’s normal that she is trying to look for answers. And the more questions she asks, the fewer answers she gets. Even if she does get some answers, they only make the whole situation more complicated. But she’s the type of person who doesn’t give up. Maybe that would be best for her, but she doesn’t. The deeper she gets, the more terrible things she finds out.”

David Nykl also stars in the HBO Europe drama

The six-part series sees Pauhofová reunite with HBO Europe, having previously appeared in Terapie (the Czech adaptation of Israel’s BeTipul, which also led to HBO US’s In Treatment) and Burning Bush. She says it was a mixture of the story and character that drew her to the series, relishing the chance to play a character who believes she understands the world around her, only for her life to be revealed as an illusion.

“She’s not a spy, she’s a very normal woman. That’s interesting,” says the actor. “When a normal person knows the world and knows how things go and comes into surroundings that are very different and discovers the rules she is used to are not there, the combination of the spy world and socialist rules becomes very dangerous for her. She has to ask herself, ‘Who am I and what am I going to do?’”

Though she grew up watching a spy genre dominated by James Bond, Pauhofová says The Sleepers is a very different story from those involving Ian Fleming’s debonair British agent, while 1989 is recent enough for the actor to remember what life was really like behind the Iron Curtain, meaning she was able to use her own experience in preparation for the role.

Filming in Prague was complicated by the fact Pauhofová was simultaneously performing in a stage play in Bratislava, in neighbouring Slovakia, meaning long commutes between the set and the theatre. What’s more, the part also required her to learn the violin, as Marie plays the instrument during the series. “I’ve never played any musical instrument. I had to look professional but I didn’t have that much time so I tried to do my best,” she says. “It was pretty adventurous – I’ve done two concerts now. So that was the biggest thing I had to prepare for. Otherwise, it was just being on the set and being focused and passionate.”

Matthews says the series, distributed by HBO Europe, will be “classy,” with a look and style that will match other spy series on television. “Everybody loves spies,” he notes. “When we started developing this, it was before [John le Carré adaptations] The Night Manager, before The Little Drummer Girl, and now spies are back so it feels like the right time for this.”

He adds: “It’s going to be exciting, it’s going to be a cracking good story. It’s going to have extremely high production values and it’s going to be about something with relevance to it. It’s a classy spy drama.”

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Achieving Success

HBO Europe’s first original series from the Adria region, Success, began life as one of the winning projects of HBO Adria’s First Draft contest in 2017, which sought new writing talent from across the territory.

Created and written by Marjan Alčevski, the show follows four complete strangers who are bound together irrevocably by a violent event. As the consequences of their actions start to infiltrate every aspect of their lives, these ordinary people, from diverse backgrounds, decide to fight back.

Starring Toni Gojanović, Tara Thaller, Iva Mihalić, Uliks Fehmiu and Marija Škaričić, Success was shot on location in Zagreb, Croatia, under the direction of Academy Award winner Danis Tanović (No Man’s Land).

The series debuted this month across HBO Europe and will also air later in the year on HBO in the US.

In this DQTV video, Alčevski discusses the origins of the character-driven crime thriller and explains why he wanted to write a series that spoke about modern Croatian society

He also touches on the themes that affect the lead characters, including violence towards women, corruption, one person’s inability to feed their family and the concept of success, and how these subjects have made it a series that resonates not just in Croatia but across Europe and around the world.

HBO Europe executive producer Steve Matthews also talks about why Success stood out among the other entrants of the First Draft competition, owing to its mix of good and bad and jeopardy.

Success is produced and distributed by HBO Europe, in coproduction with Croation prodco Drugi Plan.

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On the right track

As the battle for the best projects becomes ever more fierce, leading drama commissioners and producers open up about their own development processes and reveal how they work to bring new series to air. 

For television drama commissioners, the development process must feel a lot like spending their working hours at the races, looking for the right horse on which to bet and willing it to cross the line in first place.

The financial power of SVoD platforms has changed the game for those picking up series for their networks, with the battle for projects now increasingly fierce as partners come together earlier in the process than ever.

Meanwhile, producers are reaping the benefits of an increasing number of buyers looking for original, brand-defining shows. But how is the development process changing at both broadcaster and producer level, and what challenges do they face in the new television landscape?

Sky Atlantic’s epic Roman drama Britannia

Anna Croneman, SVT’s newly installed head of drama, admits very few of the Swedish broadcaster’s scripted series are developed in-house. Instead, writers or writer-producer teams will pitch her ideas and SVT will then board a project from the start. But Croneman says her development slate has been slimmed down to ensure viable projects are singled out early on.

“Last year we cut the development slate significantly, which means we can spend more time on things we really believe are right for us,” she explains. “We lose some projects to the international players, but there is really no other broadcaster doing what we do in Sweden, in the Swedish language. But once again, getting the right talent is an even greater challenge now.”

That challenge is amplified by the competition from Netflix and HBO Nordic, which is starting to commission local original series. “I see companies trying to tie down writers by employing them, or doing first-look deals on ideas,” Croneman adds.

HBO Europe pursues projects from both single authors (such as Štěpán Hulík’s Pustina) and those that use writers rooms (Aranyelet). “In some cases we go through quite a lot of storylining processes; other developments go to first script very quickly,” explains Steve Matthews, VP and executive producer of drama development at the firm. “Sometimes we will polish a pilot through a number of drafts, sometimes we will commission a number of first drafts. It all depends. There is no set system; every project grows organically – we are proudly writer-led in our developments and do our best in each case to find the best support we can bring to the process.”

The company seeks to join projects as soon as possible, and Matthews says there are no rules about what materials it needs to consider a pitch. “We like to be involved early so that we can offer support in that crucial inception,” he says. “That’s when we can help the team understand our needs as a broadcaster and, crucially, for us to understand what the writer is trying to do or say and so support them in that process. A shared vision early in the development fosters a sense of joint ownership and collective focus on the core idea.”

HBO Europe’s Aranyelet is adapted from Finland’s Helppo Elämä

When its original-programming operation was in its infancy, HBO Europe’s attention centred on adaptable formats. But Matthews says the network group wanted the same thing then as it does now – shows that feel fresh and relevant in the territories for which they are made, whatever their origins.

“The results include shows that are based on formats, like Aranyelet [Finland’s Helppo Elämä] and Umbre [Australia’s Small Time Gangster], but that push ahead into new stories that are entirely authored by our local teams,” he explains. “Furthermore, adapting formats has proven an excellent training ground. Our brilliant teams in the territories have nurtured stables of writers who have learned their craft on series like our various versions of In Treatment and are now showrunners passing on their knowledge to the next groups of talent we bring in. So we feel we have the experience and confidence to no longer rely on formats. For our new slate in Adria, for instance, we decided at the start we would only develop original ideas from local talent.”

UK broadcaster Channel 4 is known for its eclectic drama output, from topical miniseries The State and National Treasure to shows that take an alternative approach to familiar genres, like Humans (sci-fi) and No Offence (crime).

“We have regular conversations with producers and writers and have a realistic development slate,” explains head of drama Beth Willis. “We don’t want to flirt unnecessarily with projects we don’t love – it’s a waste of time for the producer and the writer. So we will be clear from the off about whether we think it’s for us. And if we do say we think it’s for us, we really mean it.”

As a commissioner, Willis says she will offer her thoughts on early drafts and throughout production, and that the increased competition for scripted projects means her team is now more conscious of the defining characteristics of a C4 drama. However, like Croneman, she notes that “the biggest competition is in securing talent for projects rather than specific projects themselves.”

Producer Playground Entertainment adapted Little Women

“We receive hundreds of pitches a year from independent production companies,” says Rachel Nelson, director of original content at Canada’s Corus Entertainment. Her team read and review each piece and have bi-weekly meetings where they determine what might be suitable for Corus’s suite of networks, which includes Global and Showcase.

“We work mostly with producers, rather than with a writer only. We are open to ideas and will accept any creative, from scratches on a napkin to full scripts,” she says, adding that Corus’s focus now falls on projects within targeted genres. “We’ve also learned how important it can be to take risks and not be afraid of doing that when we feel strongly about specific projects. We experienced this first-hand with Mary Kills People. We received the script, read it right away and were so impressed that we moved to an immediate greenlight on this show by an unknown writer, pairing her with an extremely experienced team.”

Fellow Canadian broadcaster Bell Media – home of CTV and Space – is also open to developing projects that arrive in any form, though a producer should be attached fairly early in the process, says director of drama Tom Hastings. That said, its development process hasn’t radically changed in recent years, even as the company moves with programming shifts such as the trend for shorter serialised dramas.

“We take a ‘steady ship during stormy weather’ approach,” Hastings says. “As our channels have strong brands and identifiable audiences, we remain committed to developing drama programmes that best fit those brands and work for those specific viewers.  We remain very selective about what we develop and we take our time, demanding the best of everyone, including, most especially, ourselves.”

Arguably the biggest battleground in the world of development is the race to secure IP, with producers scrambling to pick up rights to films, stage shows and, in particular, books – often before they have even been published.

James Richardson

Transatlantic producer Playground Entertainment is behind new adaptations of Howards End and Little Women, and has previously brought Wolf Hall, The White Queen and The White Princess to the small screen. But adaptations, like every development project, are not a “one-size-fits-all process,” says Playground UK creative director Sophie Gardiner. “Sometimes we will commission a script before going to a broadcaster – maybe because nailing the tone is crucial to the pitch and you can’t do that in a treatment – but more often we prefer to work with a partner in the initial development.

“Not only does this mean you are on their radar and they are invested in it from the get-go, but they can often be genuinely helpful. However, there’s no doubt the SVoD firms are looking for material to be pretty well developed, and more packaged [compared with what traditional broadcasters want].”

The Ink Factory burst onto the television scene with award-winning John Le Carré adaptation The Night Manager in 2016 and is following up that miniseries by adapting two more Le Carré novels – The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and The Little Drummer Girl. Both are  again with Night Manager partners AMC and the BBC.

“Relationships with broadcasters are vital, and it is via those connections that we get to know each other and forge a sense of where our taste synthesises – and, from there, opportunities evolve,” explains Ink Factory head of development Emma Broughton. “Sometimes we will work on the seed of an idea and build it ground-up with a broadcaster. Some of our projects have broadcaster attachments before they have a writer or director. On other occasions, we will develop an idea ourselves to one or two shaped scripts and take those – with a series bible and, potentially, a director and cast attachments – to a broadcaster.”

Broughton says the development process has become “more innovative and collaborative,” thanks to opportunities to build stories not confined to the UK. But increasing competition means The Ink Factory must be more distinctive, original and bold in its ambitions, she adds.

Author Štěpán Hulík’s Pustina for HBO Europe

“It’s a terrific challenge,” the exec continues, “from bringing passion and vision when pitching in a highly competitive situation to secure a book, or developing projects that attract the most exciting and creative on- and off-screen talent. It’s all about the excellence of the work, being collaborative and honouring authorship.”

A “fairly traditional” approach to development is employed at Komixx Entertainment, which follows the tried-and-tested method of sourcing existing IP with a built-in audience and using recognised writers and producers. Keeping the original author of the IP closely involved is also seen as an important step to stay true to the material, in an effort to remove as much risk to broadcasters as possible.

What is different about Komixx, says Andrew Cole-Bulgin, group creative officer and head of film and TV, is where the company sources its IP, using both recognised authors such as Robert Muchamore (the Cherub series of novels) and new content from non-traditional publishers, such as self-publishing community Wattpad.

“As a young-adult producer, it’s crucial to consider that Generation Z is an audience made up of digital natives, so the best content comes from within their digital roots,” Cole-Bulgin argues. “Transitioning and retaining this audience from one digital platform, like Wattpad, to another, such as Netflix, is easier and more successful than pursuing a linear broadcasting approach.”

Komixx now has a raft of projects in development simultaneously, instead of focusing on a select few. Cole-Bulgin also believes the increasing power of SVoD platforms has transformed the production landscape, providing huge opportunities for producers. “As they look to quickly expand their libraries of content, we have to adapt our development method to fit their needs,” he notes.

Feature producer Vertigo Films has built its reputation on the back of Football Factory, Monsters and Bronson but is now breaking into TV with Sky Atlantic series Britannia. The epic Roman-era drama is set to debut in the UK early in 2018. Co-founder James Richardson says the firm is regularly “idea led,” often by the talent involved. “But every show needs to be somehow off-kilter – commercial but never straight,” he adds. “And we like projects that we feel we haven’t seen before, or that are tackling a subject we have seen before in a completely different way. Britannia, for example, subverts the historical genre.”

Vertigo has also had Sky pick up Bulletproof, a crime drama starring Ashley Walters and Noel Clarke and showrun by Nick Love. “Going from film to TV has been such an exciting transition creatively and I am in awe of execs in the TV world for creating shows over such a long space of time, since we have just had to make 90-minute films for most of Vertigo’s lifetime,” Richardson adds. “The process – and why we want to make a project – is the same, but there’s just more story, much more story.”

Looking forward, Richardson believes the development process for television drama, which can already take several years, will take even longer. “Getting projects to a place where they are ready before shooting – the film model – will become the norm for many shows. It makes a big, big difference.”

Komixx’s Cole-Bulgin concludes: “With companies like Facebook launching into the broadcast market, it will be fascinating to see how producers deal with the increasing demand for shortform scripted content for the audiences who are consuming their content via mobile platforms.”

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