Tag Archives: Storm

Must CEE TV

With a number of drama productions from Central and Eastern Europe drawing critical acclaim in recent years, DQ finds out what’s coming next from the region and why it’s ripe for a breakout international hit.

While Scandinavia, Israel, Germany and Spain have been among the hottest territories for drama in recent years, a number of ambitious productions both in front of and behind the camera mean series coming out of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) now demand closer attention.

Over the past decade, the region’s drama output has earned plaudits on the back of HBO Europe’s original production strategy, which has led to a number of notable series – Hořící Keř (Burning Bush, 2013) and Pustina (Wasteland, 2016) from the Czech Republic; Hungarian crime drama Aranyélet (Golden Life, 2015), based on Finnish series Helppo Elämä; Wataha (The Pack, 2014), Pakt (The Pact, 2015) and Ślepnąc od świateł (Blinded by the Lights, 2018) from Poland; and Romania’s Umbre (Shadows, 2014) and Hackerville (2018).

Earlier this year also saw the launch of the first HBO Adria series in the shape of Success, a Croatian drama about four strangers bound together by a violent event. But while HBO continues to ramp up its own activities, it is by no means the only company that is pushing the limits of the region’s creativity.

Czech drama series Pustina (Wasteland) aired on HBO Europe

One of the most ambitious projects coming out of CEE is The Pleasure Principle, which is billed as the first international production between three countries in the region – Poland, Ukraine and the Czech Republic.

The 10-hour series, produced by Apple Film Production and distributed by Beta Film, sees police investigators from each country work together after female body parts are discovered in Odessa, Warsaw and Prague, in a cross-border inquiry that leads to shady businessmen, lawyers for sale, corrupt politicians, professional killers and traces of a common past. Canal+ Poland, Czech Television and Russia’s Star Media are also on board the series.

Series producer and director Dariusz Jabłoński says it was his ambition to create a universal crime thriller using local talent and crew. Set across 10 days in the three cities, the project used different teams to make the drama in each country, all under the supervision of Jabłoński.

“We have wonderful roles for the greatest actors of every country and, after a very deep casting process that I personally attended, we have chosen the best actors. Nobody refused us,” he says. “Then we started to think about shooting. Usually, when you make films that take place in different countries, you use one crew. But we wanted to show the differences between these three countries and, because of that, we chose a more challenging path by using completely local crews.

“So every country is shot by a different DOP who created the lighting for their own city. Warsaw is rather grey, all steel and glass. Prague is more bourgeois, with yellow and beige. Odessa is green and blue like the sea. All of them came with a simple idea that was different from the others, so I didn’t have much to supervise to keep everything balanced.”

Poland’s Wataha (The Pack), another HBO Europe original

The team communicated in the common language of English across the 120-day shoot, with filming being completed in one country before moving to the next. “We didn’t make any compromise over quality. It was shot in 8K with two, sometimes four, cameras, cranes and every technical tool at our disposal,” Jabłoński says. “I hope this show will not only be exciting for the viewers but also present the technical facilities of our countries.”

Russian drama Storm, meanwhile, sees respected police detective Gradov turn to crime – and murder – to find the money to pay for his terminally ill wife’s medical treatment. When his colleague, Osokin, begins to suspect Gradov is behind a string of crimes, he becomes determined to expose him.

Produced and distributed by Yellow, Black and White (YBW) for streamer start.ru and directed by Boris Khlebnikov (An Ordinary Woman), the series focuses on a complex group of characters and the choices they make.

“It is a wholly original story that writer/director Natalia Meschaninova came up with,” explains YBW creative producer Irina Sosnovaya. “The goal we set with this story was to make a genre series that would thrill and entertain within the social context of contemporary Russia. As producers, we tried to give as much creative freedom to the talented crew as we could, not forcing them to stay within the boundaries of the genre but encouraging them to write a social drama we would be excited to follow.”

The rise of streaming platforms is fuelling the drama boom in the region, Sosnovaya says, with creators no longer bound by the restrictions of major TV channels. Daria Bondarenko, YBW’s head of international development, distribution and coproductions, picks up: “Digital services allow authors to be uncompromising, to be bold and to take risks without looking back, so that’s where the cream of Russian talent gravitates towards. Directors, writers and actors now work on the digital series with as much freedom as they allow.

Magdalena Cieślak

“Just 10 years ago, Russia was an unknown and unexplored market. Nowadays things have changed tremendously: we see more and more shows that travel globally, some of them awarded and recognised at prestigious TV festivals. Every new pickup of a Russian show outside our local market is a big success for the entire industry; it is the recognition that makes us noticeable as a film-producing country.”

Shifting west of Russia, TVP1 series Our Century marks the first period drama to come from producer Endemol Shine Poland (ESP). Based on the book by Albena Grabowska, it follows the fortunes of the multi-generational Winny family, woven through the most dramatic events of the 20th century.

Magdalena Cieślak, head of scripted at ESP, says she and her fellow creative producer on the show, Małgosia Retei, “were immediately taken by the story when we read the three-part novel back in 2016.”

She continues: “It was nearly a thousand pages of gripping literature, which we believed could serve as the basis for a great script. It took us some time, though, to convince the broadcaster, as period dramas seemed a very costly and risky genre at that time. What helped us was the involvement of one of the best Polish screenwriters, Ilona Łepkowska, who supervised the script development and ensured the project we pitched to TVP1 was outstanding in terms of storytelling.”

Other talent involved includes director Piotr Trzaskalski, DOP Witold Płóciennik and actors Kinga Preis, Jan Wieczorkowski and Olaf Lubaszenko.

The story begins in 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War and ends in modern times, covering almost 100 years of Polish history. Against this backdrop plays the story of one family whose lives are full of hidden secrets, passion, love, sacrifice and complicated relationships.

Certain book characters were cut to allow for greater focus on some of the more distinctive family members, while new scenes were created for the adaptation, which blends drama and tragedy with touches of comedy and some fantastical, dreamlike sequences that relate to one character’s ability to see the future.

Our Century is the first period drama from producer Endemol Shine Poland

Cieślak says shows like Our Century feed Poland’s current demand for homegrown series while also showcasing the “outstanding” quality achievable by the local production industry.

“Polish viewers prefer local stories and 80% of the dramas on air are created and produced locally,” she adds. “To find new ideas that will entrance the audience, we need to invest in local talent, beginning with script writing and development. Over the last two years, we have also seen more book adaptations making it to screen, so we are watching the publishing market very closely and searching for adaptation opportunities.”

Over in Croatia, the third and final season of Novine (The Paper), made by producer Drugi Plan for local broadcaster HRT and Israeli distributor Keshet International, is currently in production. Set in a busy newspaper office, the series presents a cocktail of political corruption, power struggles, crime and betrayal, with its characters navigating the blurred lines of morality and integrity. After exploring the media in season one and politics in season two, season three moves to the judiciary.

“If we take into consideration the size of the country and its capacity in terms of cinematography, and a specific language, we can say that Croatian high-end drama production is doing really well in European and even global terms,” says Nebojsa Taraba, producer of The Paper and creative director at Drugi Plan. “The Paper is globally available on Netflix, and HBO aired its first series from the Adria region this year, Success, which is also produced by us.

“There’s a lot being done in neighbouring Serbia – supposedly there are as many as 20 projects in different stages of pre-production and production, so high-end series are going through a real renaissance in the region.”

Nebojsa Taraba

When it comes to stories that will attract an audience, “there are no rules,” Taraba states. “People simply like strong stories they can relate to, regardless of the genre. People also like stories with some kind of social involvement and message. Luckily for us, or maybe unfortunately for us, the entire region of south-eastern Europe has many such stories, whether we tell them ourselves or someone else comes over and tells our stories. The best example of [the latter] is Chernobyl.”

Series like Chernobyl – made by the UK’s Sister Pictures for Sky Atlantic and HBO and focusing on the 1986 nuclear disaster – demonstrate that success can be found in unearthing previously unknown stories that are ripe for dramatisation or setting a fictional story against a specific historical backdrop. Germany has created several successful dramas fitting this description, including Babylon Berlin, the Deutschland series and Ku’Damm 56.

The makers of Czech drama Dukla 61 took a similar approach to history after discovering the true story of a mining tragedy that led to the deaths of 108 people. The two-part miniseries, set in 1961, takes place in the town of Havířov, home to the Dukla mine. It focuses on the Šlachta family, with father Milan and son Petr working in the mine, where the highest-quality coal is a commodity sought at any cost.

Blending family drama and disaster epic, Dukla 61 was inspired by a single line in a book. The project was then developed and produced by Czech Television.

“There was a book with a short sentence about some disaster that was in 1961; there was just one sentence that they brought in many miners,” says Czech TV creative producer Michal Reitler. “We started researching and realised nobody knew about this disaster. We focused on this for six months and then we developed the scripts.”

Director David Ondříček picks up: “The main reason why it’s so successful is that it has a great screenplay and is very authentic in tone and has a lot of emotions. We tried to tell a story without words, especially towards the end.”

Russian series Storm was made for streamer start.ru

The creative team credit the movement of film writers, directors and producers to the small screen with advancing the Czech drama industry, with Ondříček noting that television was considered a “dirty word” just a decade ago. “It was a filmmakers’ community, but it’s changed a lot,” he says.

Reitler adds: “It helps that money is coming to development first, so we can work with writers and then decide what we will produce. There becomes a system of how to develop scripts, how to find the right authors and how to work with them to find a way to tell a story that is understandable locally and globally.

“Everyone asks us if there will be a new Czech wave like in film in the 1960s. We can feel something in the air but we don’t know what it is. There are a lot of new producers. Our generation of directors is in good shape. We’ll see. I can feel that we try to make very authentic and very good-quality shows.”

As streaming platforms mature and creative talent find new places to tell their stories, there is ambition in the region to see its series go on to become as globally popular as projects from other countries. But as ever, financing looms large as the inevitable barrier to the most epic projects getting off the ground.

“The challenges we face are not of a creative but a financial nature,” says Taraba, noting that a Croatian series might cost six or seven times less than one produced in neighbouring Italy or Austria. “It is only financial restrictions, or the low intensity of production, that can stop the creative momentum of the Croatian and the regional market right now. For the price of an episode of an average drama series in the UK or Germany, you can produce an entire season of a series in the range of The Paper in Croatia.”

Croatian drama The Paper airs on HRT and is also available on Netflix

On making The Pleasure Principle, Jabłoński adds: “We used all the resources from Eastern Europe and we had to combine them because no single broadcaster was able to finance this show. So thanks to this combination, each of our partners got the show for their own exploitation, but we controlled everything to deliver a good show not only for our audience but the international audience.

“This is a trial to check if this combination will bring the quality that will make a difference and break the glass ceiling we experience as filmmakers from Eastern Europe because we feel we’re not able yet to make international audiences excited. I hope that will change.”

With the quality of drama and ambitious storytelling coming out of the region, coupled with the continuing demand for series worldwide, Central and Eastern Europe is well placed to smash that glass ceiling and become the latest global drama hotspot.

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , ,

Storm coming

Russian drama Storm follows a policeman who faces a desperate choice if he wants to save the woman he loves. Producer/distributor Yellow, Black and White’s Irina Sosnovaya and Daria Bondarenko introduce the series.

Russian drama Storm details follows a policeman’s descent into criminality and the detective on his trail.

Launching later this fall on Russian streaming platform Start.ru, the series is produced by Start Studio, part of Yellow, Black and White Group (YBW), which has exclusive distribution rights

Here, YBW’s creative producer Irina Sosnovaya and Daria Bondarenko, executive VP of international development, distribution and coproductions, tell DQ about developing the series, the writing process and the emergence of Russian drama on the international stage.

What is the series about?
Irina Sosnovaya: The story begins at a small seaside town festival. A prominent businessman who has his sights on the mayor’s office opens a children’s arts and sports palace. The roof of the building collapses under the weight of the snow, and the palace turns into a mass grave. It looks like the businessman is going to get away with it until Detective Sergey Gradov (Aleksandr Robak) from the police anti-corruption unit deems it a matter of honour to put the man responsible for children’s deaths behind bars.
When Gradov is just a step away from achieving his goal, his wife Marina (Anna Mikhalkova) falls gravely ill, with her only hope of survival being a liver transplant and expensive specialist treatment overseas. To save the woman he loves, Gradov will have to let the main suspect go and resort to extortion, bribery and evidence-tampering to raise the money he needs.
The criminal decides to get rid of Gradov because he knows too much. But Gradov’s razor-sharp mind and talent for scheming make him incredibly elusive. To save his life and fight his enemy, he starts killing people and getting rid of the evidence. But his friend Mikhail Osokin (Maksim Lagashkin), who works in homicide, begins to suspect Gradov could be behind the chain of murders. Although he has no hard evidence, it becomes a matter of honour for Osokin to expose Gradov’s crimes.

Storm focuses on a detective whose life spirals out of control when his wife becomes terminally ill

How was it developed with the broadcaster?
Daria Bondarenko: The director, Boris Khlebnikov (Arrhythmia, An Ordinary Woman), is well known in Russia for his nuanced and realistic social dramas that capture Russian realities and present an in-depth analysis of interpersonal relationships. Many of them have been distinguished and recognised internationally.
Another exciting thing about the series is that it is a mostly character-driven story in which we see a man just like any other making a choice – and crashing down. When we discovered this story, we realised that only an online platform would be able to handle this sort of frank portrayal of Russian realities.
Sosnovaya: Storm has many layers to it, which can attract critics and spark discussions. Government against business, civil servants against military, journalists against activists – these are some of the conflicts it covers.
It also has a lot to say about human relationships. One of the investigators has a fiancée who teaches psychology at a university. He wants to marry her and have kids. Another one has a wife, but he is not happy with her and tries to convince her to try an open relationship. A businessman, who feels that he owns his town, has a wife and a kid who remembers his father’s every misstep. Both the hero and antihero want to see a continuation of themselves in their children, so their conflict is, in a way, a battle for Russia’s future.

How would you describe the show’s tone?
Sosnovaya: We realised it would be challenging to pick the right tone for a story about corruption and police in contemporary Russia. But we feel that these series are not primarily about the police or the investigative committee, but about people and the choices they make.
The story emphasises the protagonists’ lack of moral compass, which is what makes it interesting. The characters are complex people who find themselves in challenging circumstances. This story is not rooted in a particular setting or town. It’s more about human nature in general.
Bondarenko: The complexity of the story comes from the complexity of its characters. There are no straight heroes or villains, so we think the audience will be more interested in following the more realistic plot development.

Aleksandr Robak (left) stars as Detective Sergey Gradov

What was the writing process like?
Sosnovaya: It is a wholly original story that Natalia Meschaninova, a writer/director, came up with. The goal we set ourselves with this story was to make a genre series that would thrill and entertain within the social context that is characteristic of contemporary Russia and any other country.
Boris Khlebnikov, the series director, was also a big part of creating the story. As producers, we tried to give as much creative freedom to the talented crew as we could, not forcing them to stay within the boundaries of the genre but encouraging them to write the social drama we would be excited to follow.

Where was it filmed and how would you describe the visual style?
Bondarenko: We picked Kronshtadt, a beautiful seaside city that stands on a Kotlin Island, one hour away from St Petersburg.
Sosnovaya: The series is stylised after 1970s American movies like William Friedkin’s French Connection, but with a modern twist

How are drama series evolving in the region?
Sosnovaya: Since the rise of online streaming services that produce original content, the industry has been booming. Content creators are no longer bound by the restrictions of the major TV channels and they are starting to create bold genre and high-concept projects.
The Russian online audience is more informed and pickier. The world has globalised, and the series that are popular abroad are also popular in Russia. Chernobyl was an event; many people have said it should have been shot in Russia if the industry were more developed. We are trying to help the industry get there, to bring it to the international level.
Digital-only projects are gradually becoming the industry’s leading events – shows like Gold Diggers directed by Konstantin Bogomolov and An Ordinary Woman by Khlebnikov. We are seeing how, little by little, the world’s majors are gaining interest in Russian projects that are getting recognised by the international audience.

Series director Boris Khlebnikov (centre) on set

What kinds of stories are audiences interested in?
Sosnovaya: The audience loves watching itself. It’s the effect of recognition. We like imagining ourselves in every story we hear or see; we enjoy experiencing someone else’s life.
As a production company, we seek stories that combine high concept with familiar characters and relationship models. We can’t have simple black-and-white characters – it won’t keep the audience’s interest for long. We need complex ones. This would allow us to do projects that not only have high production values but tell the story in a more detailed, engaging way, allowing for more in-depth look on the characters.

What are you working on next?
Sosnovaya: Our next project is called A Good Man, a story about a killer that is based on real events that have shaken the entire country. A man who slaughtered 82 women and managed to get away from the police for 20 years turned out to be a decent-looking person who everyone around deemed ‘a good man,’ and, most shockingly, he was a policeman.
After his wife cheated on him, he got disappointed in women and decided to become a ‘judge,’ meeting females and brutally murdering those he deemed unworthy, letting go only those who passed his test.
As we were preparing for the project, our scriptwriter and I went to interview the subject of our story in prison. Four hours into it, we discovered his real motivations, which we used as the foundation for our script. Konstantin Bogomolov, who directed Gold Diggers for us, will be directing this series as well.
Bondarenko: We believe this story can appeal to viewers outside Russia. The audience’s interest in high-concept stories rooted in real-life events is continually growing. What could be more potent than a story of a maniac who is trying to ‘catch’ himself as a policeman? And it’s not just a story, it’s something that really happened.

tagged in: , , , ,