Swedish producer Piodor Gustafsson reveals his approach to book adaptations and explains why thriller Moscow Noir presents a new side of Russia.
While recent television dramas such as McMafia and The Americans have shone the spotlight on Russia on both sides of the Cold War, with stories full of international mystery and intrigue, one series aims to present a fresh perspective of the country.
Set at the turn of the 21st century, Moscow Noir sees ambitious young Swedish investment banker Tom Blixen take a bet on a risky deal that goes horribly wrong, locking him into a battle with millionaires, politicians, oligarchs and their private armies. The fallout sees his life put on the line while ghosts from his past – secrets he has been trying to ignore – return to haunt him.
The eight-part series is based on The Conductor from Saint Petersburg, the first of a trilogy of thrillers by Swedish writers Camilla Grebe and Paul Leander-Engström.
The fact the story is based in part on Leander-Engström’s own experiences working in finance in Russia was what particularly intrigued Swedish producer Piodor Gustafsson about the source material. His company, Black Spark Film & TV, has a reputation for book-to-screen adaptations, having also been behind Sthlm Rekviem (Sthlm Requiem) and All jag inte minns (Everything I Don’t Remember).
“I read a lot. Producers don’t usually create our own ideas; we could, but sometimes it’s much easier to get people interested if it’s not the producer’s idea. If I want to work with a really good writer, it’s easier if there is something that already exists than if I come with my own 20 pages and say, ‘Look, I have a great idea. Can you make it fantastic?’” Gustafsson tells DQ.
“It’s a bigger hurdle than having a book that’s sold and is really popular. It’s the same thing with financiers [of TV drama] – it’s easier to pitch to them. So I read all the time and I have several books I really want to make [into TV shows]. Sometimes the rights are already taken; sometimes they are free. In the case of Moscow Noir, I read the book after a recommendation from Caroline Palmstierna [the founder of Swedish prodco Shoot for the Moon].
“She arranged a meeting one of the authors, Paul, and he said had already optioned it to a company in England. But they had a very short option period. So Paul promised to call them and see if they were prepared to let them go – and they were, so then I got the rights.”
Gustafsson gleaned more information from about the story from Leander-Engström, while his own circumstances also fuelled his interest in the thriller. “I have a summer house on Gotland, a big island in the middle of the Baltic Sea and as close to the old USSR as you get from Sweden, which is now Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia. You realise how close it is and yet we know nothing about real Russians,” he says.
“So by reading the book, it was the first time I read about Russians who were bad guys but still had a good side. It felt like [the authors] really understood these characters. Of course, Paul lived there for 10 years and speaks fluent Russian. I also have a law degree and I worked in a bank, so I understand that side of society as well. It intrigued me.”
Created and written by Aleksi Bardy, Mia Ylonen and Max Barron, the show stars Adam Pålsson (Before We Die) as Tom, with Carolina Gruszka (Kod genetyczny) and Linda Zilliacus (Thicker Than Water) also among the cast. Filming took place in Russia and Lithuania, while the series plays out in the Russian, Swedish and English languages.
Sweden’s C More and TV4 came on board as broadcasters alongside Poland’s NC+, though efforts to find a Russian partner were unsuccessful. “We filmed a little bit in Russia. We tried to get a coproduction with Russia and it was put to their biggest channels, but they were hesitant about whether it would be a good thing for them to be involved and, in the end, they decided against it,” Gustafsson recalls.
“The book is set in 2003, which is after Vladimir Putin came into power [as president], while we placed it in 1999 because that was when the shift between [predecessor] Boris Yeltsin and Putin happened.
“We filmed the rest in Lithuania. A lot of Lithuanian actors are fluent in Russian and they work a lot in Russia, so we could quite easily cast all the characters we wanted and cast them locally. We had some other nationalities, but most were Lithuanians and they were really great actors.”
Gustafsson believes the 2018 series, which StudioCanal has sold to broadcasters including Canal+ in France, stands out because its central character is not a typical action hero. “Adam is a great actor but he looks very young and is not your normal action character. That makes it challenging when you introduce him, because he’s not a typical hero, but it’s also a strength further on because the weakness he presents is what we all feel and it’s easy to identify with him,” he explains. “A lot of people could actually connect with him even though they’re not interested in banking.
The producer adds: “One of our aims was to create characters that felt true to Russia in 1999 and to move away from stereotypes. Russians we’ve shown it to feel the characters are very close to how people really were. Paul, who created these characters inspired by real people, really felt we came very close.
“We screened the first two episodes of the series in a cinema and Paul brought some of his old banking colleagues from that time. Funnily enough, they could pinpoint some of the characters that were Paul’s inspiration. Michael Håfström, the director, collaborated closely with the Russian-speaking actors to find a tone that was true.
Black Spark is now in post-production on two feature films. One is called Tigers, written and directed by Ronnie Sandahl, and the other is Icelandic film Lamb, from Valdimar Jóhannsson, which is coproduced with Go to Sheep from Iceland and Madant from Poland.
Continuing his passion for adapting novels, Gustafsson is also developing a TV series with Belgium’s Lunanimé and Nordisk Film in Denmark, based on The Swimmer by Joachim Zander, and is working on Mons Kallentoft’s Se Mig Falla (See Me Falling).
Building on the global trend for true crime dramas is En el Corredor de la Muerte (On Death Row), a Spanish drama based on the true story of a man falsely accused for murder and facing the death penalty in the US.
Miguel Ángel Silvestre (Sense8, Narcos) plays Pablo Ibar, who must fight to get a fair trial from the day a triple murder was committed to the day of final sentencing in 2019 when he could either be released or sent back to death row to be executed.
In this DQTV interview, Silvestre recalls hearing about the real-life case in Spain and why it was important the four-part miniseries dramatised the events objectively, leaving viewers to their own opinions about the death penalty.
He also talks about his approach to playing Ibar and how the production was committed to keeping the drama grounded and rooted in reality.
Based on the book by Nacho Carretero (Fariña, aka Cocaïne Coast), On Death Row is produced by Bambu Producciones for Movistar+ and distributed by StudioCanal.
Since its debut in 2005, French crime drama Engrenages (Spiral) has explored the country’s justice system with new cases in each season involving murders, drug and arms trafficking, and organised crime. The cast includes Audrey Fleurot, Thierry Godard, Caroline Proust and Gregory Fitoussi.
In this DQTV video, showrunner Marine Francou, who took over in season seven, discusses how each season of Spiral tries to explore a story with links to contemporary themes and issues.
She also talks about the show’s particularly dark style and tone, discusses why it has become a global hit in more than 100 countries and opens the door to life in the writers room.
Engrenages is produced by Son et Lumière for Canal+ and distributed by StudioCanal.
An eclectic group of characters must face their own fears and flaws – as well as aliens – in The War of the Worlds, a modern update of HG Wells’ iconic story for France’s Canal+ and Fox Networks Group Europe and Africa.
For five seasons until 2013, British drama Misfits told the story of a group of young offenders brought together after they each gain superpowers following a strange electrical storm – ordinary people facing extraordinary circumstances.
Now, Misfits creator Howard Overman has applied the same concept to HG Wells’ classic 1897 story The War of the Worlds, in which aliens invade the Earth, leading to widespread devastation and destruction.
Like the 2005 Tom Cruise movie of the same name, but in contrast to an upcoming BBC adaptation set at the time Wells first published the story, Overman has placed The War of the Worlds in the present day to ask his characters what they would be willing to do to survive.
The eight-part series begins when astronomers detect a transmission from another galaxy, confirming the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life. Within days, however, mankind is all but wiped out, with only pockets of humanity left in an eerily deserted world.
The drama follows the destinies of a handful of survivors, all dealing with the sudden exodus, the loss of their loved ones and all that once gave meaning to their lives as they try to understand the reasons behind this unfathomable invasion.
Described as a unique marriage of human drama and science fiction, the show uses Wells’ story as a starting point before Overman takes it in an entirely new direction to explore human emotion during an unprecedented event, asking how people’s relationships and circumstances change when they are faced with the end of the world.
“I wanted to explore the idea that, just like HG Wells’ aliens, humanity has an almost limitless capacity to destroy those it sees as inferior or different,” Overman says. “This new interpretation of Wells’ cult novel focuses on the subtleties of human relationships, between, say, parents and children, couples, or complete strangers. The alien attack and its repercussions bring out the characters’ deepest vulnerabilities as they try to navigate this dangerous new world.”
Intriguingly, for large parts of the series, the alien is out there but can only be seen through snatched glimpses, allowing viewers’ own minds to perceive the horror confronting the characters.
But there are also lighter moments, with the extreme events facing the planet also lending themselves to stories of love, courage and hope, as well as themes of prejudice, responsibility and guilt.
“Throughout the episodes, the series juxtaposes these contrasting ideas as the characters become increasingly complex,” continues Overman, who produces with Julian Murphy and Johnny Capps (both Merlin, Atlantis). “Cinematic and full of the mystery and intrigue that are found in the best works of science fiction, this series is both character- and action-driven.
“Our War of the Worlds is essentially a story about humanity. If aliens were to attack tomorrow, and life as we know it were destroyed, what would we do to survive? What would it teach us about other people – and, above all, about ourselves?”
The bilingual series, with characters speaking English and French, was suitably shot on both sides of the English Channel, with two units simultaneously filming four episodes at once over a period of 16 weeks. Actors jumped between scenes from different episodes, while directors Gilles Coulier (De Dag) and Richard Clark (Versailles) guided and supported them to ensure continuity across all eight episodes.
Filming took place in the Welsh cities of Cardiff and Newport as well as in London, France’s Charleville-Mézières and the Alps. Real settings such as the International Research Institute for Radio Astronomy were also used for the drama, which is produced by Urban Myth Films in partnership with AGC Television and distributed by StudioCanal.
Among those battling the aliens are Gabriel Byrne, Elizabeth McGovern, Léa Drucker, Adel Bencherif, Stephen Campbell Moore, Natasha Little, Stéphane Caillard, Guillaume Gouix and Daisy Edgar Jones.
Byrne (The Usual Suspects) plays Bill Ward, a committed eminent neuroscientist who will do anything to win back the woman he loves, McGovern’s Helen Brown, Bill’s ex-wife whose long-held convictions are rocked by the out-of-this-world events.
Byrne agrees with Overman when he says aliens are not the main focus of the series, which instead tells the story of humans in extreme conditions and deprived of the comfort and safety they used to take for granted. “As a scientist, Bill tries to gather together all the indecipherable clues from another world, to try to come up with a solution,” he says of his character. “As a man, he does everything he can to get back together with his ex-wife, despite the chaos they are living in.”
Describing his role as “very physical and emotionally intense,” Byrne says the project was more challenging than he anticipated. “I had to adapt to the specifics of this series – the way it was filmed, mainly, with two teams working simultaneously. We were constantly switching from one to the other, going back and forth between film sets. Under those conditions, it’s a challenge to maintain continuity, both in action and emotion.”
As McGovern explains, the series opens when Bill is trying to repair his and Helen’s marriage, with the alien invasion then throwing them back together.
“What I really loved about this project was Howard’s desire to talk about the destinies of ordinary people faced with a catastrophe that threatens life on Earth as we know it.” the Downton Abbey star explains. “He skilfully depicts our priorities, who we are, and the meaning of our relationships in a world that may be ending. That’s what I liked. He’s really interested in the characters. For me, that is far more fascinating than watching aliens from outer space attack us.”
Similarly, Drucker (Le Bureau des Légendes) was enticed by the opportunity to play an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances. “I have never worked in sci-fi. I like the realistic approach – that’s how the directors wanted it. We’re not superheroes fighting aliens,” she says. “Of course, there’s a lot of action, but the whole story is very thoughtful.”
Her character, Catherine Durand, is a scientist working at an observatory in the Alps, a loner driven by a desire to discover something extraordinary. But when she’s plunged into a state of war, she’s completely overwhelmed.
To prepare for the series, Drucker studied archival footage and images of war, and also visited the Tate Britain gallery in London to look at photographs by renowned war photojournalist Don McCullin. “To me, The War of the Worlds is first and foremost about war,” she adds. “It’s a humanistic series, but also a very harsh series. The world it depicts is rough and brutal, and the aliens aren’t the only reason for it. These extraterrestrials force us to question who we are as humans.”
But while the spectacle of the alien invasion will undoubtedly take centre stage, it’s the challenges the characters face in a modern setting that the creators hope will focus the minds of viewers.
“I think this story is particularly relevant today,” says McGovern. “Because of climate change and all that’s happening in the world now, we’ve lost confidence in our dominant position. We live with this constant anxiety: Is life on Earth about to end? What does that mean for us? What does that mean for us as a species? What’s really important? What isn’t?
“By placing this contemporary reality in the imaginary context of science fiction, The War of the Worlds invites us to think about our lives and what they mean today.”
Dan Sefton, creator and writer of BBC miniseries Trust Me, talks about the show’s evolution into an anthology after losing its star and explains how the second season has been inspired by the work of Alfred Hitchcock.
When Jodie Whittaker was unveiled as Doctor Who’s first female lead in July 2017, it proved to be a huge boon for the team behind another BBC series starring the actor, which happened to be launching just a couple of weeks after the announcement.
Trust Me went on to draw a consolidated average of six million viewers over its four-episode run, with writer Dan Sefton’s thriller following Whittaker as a nurse who, after losing her job, steals a doctor friend’s identity to start a new life in Edinburgh.
But while Whittaker was swept up in a wave of Whovian anticipation, Sefton was left to work out how a second season of Trust Me might shape up without its lead.
“It’s one of those things that happened,” he says stoically. “Jodie was the standout in the whole of the first season. She’s a brilliant actress. We had ideas of how we could carry it on, but when it was announced she would be playing the Doctor, we realised that would be almost impossible.
“But the BBC were very keen to keep the conversation going because it had been such a big hit. So we pitched them something brand new and, luckily, they thought it was a good idea – and here we are. If this one is popular, we can keep going and dig into the dark side of medicine in lots of different ways.”
That idea of shining a light on medicine’s dark side has become a key building block for the series. Season one saw Whittaker’s Cath work in a hospital, treating patients and performing operations, having presented herself as a different – and more qualified – medic. Season two, which debuted on BBC1 this month, moves to a Glasgow hospital, where Corporal Jamie McCain (played by Harry Potter’s Alfred Enoch) is recovering from a spinal injury that has left him paralysed. When patients on the ward begin to die suddenly, Jamie believes a killer is striking in the hospital – but his injuries make his investigation dangerous and difficult. John Hannah, Ashley Jensen and Richard Rankin also head the cast.
When he looked back at season one to identify a DNA or formula that he could extract and apply to season two, former doctor Sefton says he was drawn to the things people fear in hospitals.
“The whole point is these storylines are edgy and tense and you can’t believe they would actually happen,” he explains. “Season one was the story of an imposter treating you in a hospital, and some people really found it unpleasant. The idea that a healthcare professional could be a murderer and people could be killed in hospital is also a horrible idea, especially when you’re at your most vulnerable. It does happen; it’s not common, but it does happen. So that was the common thread we picked up on.”
With that in mind, the story quickly became a version of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 classic Rear Window transplanted to a hospital, with an immobile patient trying to snare a suspected killer. John Alexander directs the season, which is again produced by Red Production Company and distributed by StudioCanal.
“I’ve always said it’s two stories at the same time, kind of like two movies,” Sefton continues. “You’ve got the thriller movie of somebody up to no good in this hospital, somebody murdering patients, and the question of who is it and can they be stopped. Then you’ve got a movie about somebody whose life has completely changed after a spinal injury. How are they going to cope, and what challenges do they face psychologically?
“It’s a tricky form because, on the one hand, a thriller is always pushing you to go to the next thing as quickly as possible. That’s a balance you have to try to strike in these shows, because you don’t want the audience to be bored. With four hours, you want to really dig into the character and work out what makes them tick. Through the whole process of writing and editing, you’re trying to keep the pace up and also to have enough time to get into his background and why he is where he is.”
The Hitchcock influence goes beyond just the story, also permeating the gothic set design –Jamie is on the James Stewart wing of the hospital, which shares its name with the frequent Hitchcock collaborator who starred in Rear Window. It can be heard, too, via the use of strings in the music. The drama also bears a touch of horror, with Sefton, who admits he’s a “massive fan” of the seminal British director, hoping to keep viewers feeling uncomfortable throughout the drama.
“Everybody doing it has just paid a little homage to him in the writing, the directing and the music, but hopefully not to the point where it’s a pastiche but an acknowledgement that Rear Window was there and this idea of somebody stuck trying to remotely sort something out is interesting,” he notes.
The fact that lead character Jamie is either in bed or largely immobile for much of the four-hour running time made the writing process tough for Sefton. Jamie’s journey to recovery is slightly accelerated to make the drama work, but the Sefton was keen to realistically depict the difficulty of overcoming a spinal injury.
“The first episode is [almost entirely] in that hospital room and we found it quite challenging because you’ve got to keep giving him interesting things to do – the idea that just reaching over and getting a glass of water is a massive challenge for someone who’s hardly moved in five or six weeks. If people buy into that small challenge being massive for this character, hopefully you’ve got an interesting thriller set up where crawling across the floor is like walking across a bridge for somebody else, or scaling a mountain. That was the idea, but it was tricky.”
In fact, Sefton highlights one such scene as a standout from the entire show. It takes place towards the end of episode one, when Jamie is forced to crawl across the floor in a desperate attempt to retrieve evidence he thinks could point to the killer.
“I think it works really well,” Sefton asserts. “It’s a combination of it being written that way, John directing it brilliantly and Alfie performing it, and then the music has the ‘Hitchcock strings.’ That’s the time I got a tingle – you felt it was playing out like one of those classic thrillers where you’ve got the building crescendo of the music. And even though he’s just crawling across the floor to grab this iPad, it’s the biggest thing. I really like that.”
Sefton says the scene works because of the combination of his script and the vision of Alexander, who directed all four episodes of this season having helmed two for the first run. But he doesn’t think the visual style of a series, which airs episode three tomorrow and is available on BBC iPlayer, is entirely down to the director, believing writers should also be encouraged to think visually.
“That’s the biggest misconception of screenwriting – that you just write the dialogue and the director does everything else,” he adds. “That’s absolutely not true. Screenwriting is all about what happens. It’s about actions, what people are doing – what they’re saying is actually quite peripheral.”
Writers Adam Price, Jeppe Gjervig Gram and actor Birgitte Hjort Sørensen made their names on Danish political drama Borgen. Michael Pickard finds out what they’ve been up to since and how the series shaped their careers.
When Borgen first aired in 2010, the idea that a television drama focusing on the complexities of Danish coalition politics might travel around the world must have seemed optimistic at best.
Even local pubcaster DR, which commissioned the show, wasn’t convinced it would have an international future. “The head of drama then, Ingolf Gabald, said from very early on, ‘Guys, don’t ever think this show will travel because it will not,’” remembers series creator Adam Price (pictured top centre with members of the Borgen cast). “It’s funny now. Of course, you can say in hindsight he missed that one because then it was sold to almost 100 countries.”
Gabold can be forgiven for his caution. But buoyed by the international success of Scandinavian exports such as Wallander, Forbrydelsen (The Killing), the Millennium film trilogy and Broen/Bron (The Bridge), Borgen was swept up in the wave of demand for series coming out of the region.
In the near-decade since Borgen made its debut, its stars – including Sidse Babett Knudsen (who played prime minister Birgitte Nyborg), Pilou Asbæk (her advisor Kasper Juul) and Birgitte Hjort Sørensen (journalist Katrine Fønsmark) – and those behind the camera have gone on to make series that have kept Danish drama in the global spotlight.
Price most recently wrapped on another DR series, Herrens Veje (Ride Upon the Storm), a two-season, 20-episode drama about a family of priests who each choose their own path to a meaningful life. It stars Lars Mikkelsen and is produced by Sam Productions, with StudioCanal distributing.
“I really wanted to try to understand religion,” Price says. “Religion is one of the most important and essential topics to choose when we’re talking big drama, and it’s a source of worry for so many people. It’s almost as if the debate about religion itself has become radicalised. It’s as if there’s no limit to what we are able to say to each other. I really wanted us to discuss and debate religion because, if we talk about religion, we might not kill each other.”
The writer says that although he is a fan of Nordic noir, he was keen to ensure Borgen’s successor didn’t follow the path of a “dark, gritty crime story, typically with dead people in forests and lonely, socially awkward police officers who have to solve the cases.” Instead, Price decided to explore a new genre, Nordic magical realism, with a story about spirituality and faith. “It’s incredibly important not to keep moving along the same alleyways. Even the Brits are now producing Nordic noir and have been for several years. It’s not a speciality of the Nordic countries anymore,” he says.
Ride Upon the Storm launched in the UK on streaming platform Walter Presents in January this year, the same month that Greyzone, which stars Borgen alumna Sørensen, also debuted on the Channel 4-backed service.
The 10-part series, produced by Cosmo Films for TV2 and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment, follows the events that lead up to a planned terror attack in Scandinavia, centring on brilliant drone engineer Victoria Rahbek (Sørensen), who is taken hostage.
Her captor is part of the terror cell planning the attack, with Victoria chosen so the group can acquire the components it needs from her company. Victoria must risk everything to steal the equipment while also working as a double agent for the police, who will do anything to prevent the attack.
“I could sense there was a high level of ambition from the people who created it,” the actor says of the show, which is written by Morten Dragster and Oskar Söderlund. “Greyzone is the term we have in Danish for ‘grey area’ – all the things that aren’t black and white, which is life. Often in fiction, there’s a given right or wrong because it reads well and you know who to root for, but in real life that’s hardly ever the case. So it really interested me that they wanted to dive into this complex world.
“It’s easy to write off terrorists as madmen or psychopaths. In our case, Victoria is forced to look behind the cold, brutal man she meets to try to understand how he became like this.”
At first, Greyzone appears to be a typical crime show or thriller, Sørensen says, before it reveals the internal psychological drama between Victoria and her captor, Iyad (Ardalan Esmaili). “It almost becomes like a play because we’re confined in this small space, her apartment. He intrudes into her world and then they have to live together in this odd way. All of the action takes place between them, at least in that part of the storyline.”
After her breakout role in Borgen, Sørensen landed parts in British dramas Marple and Midsomer Murders, starred in feature Pitch Perfect 2 and also appeared in HBO series Game of Thrones and Vinyl. What she enjoys about acting, she explains, is the opportunity to dive into different worlds, genres and characters, particularly when this gives her the chance to learn something new.
“I had a lot of great adventures abroad. The thing about working overseas is the budgets are usually bigger, so the toys are usually bigger – I would never get to do something like Game of Thrones in Denmark because we couldn’t afford it,” she continues. “It’s been so adventurous, but also, because it is a much bigger pond, I naturally become a smaller fish. I haven’t said I’ll never work abroad again, but there were a lot of days where I just sat on my own and I missed my family, so I made a conscious choice to move back home and be here and work here, and I’m really happy.
“Because Denmark is such a small country, it’s so familiar so it’s a very safe and comfortable way of working. Sometimes the sense of hierarchy is so strong in the UK and US, you feel like you’re just doing a job, whereas I feel more like part of the process in Denmark.”
One of Price’s Borgen co-writers, Jeppe Gjervig Gram, followed up the political drama with a series of his own creation, Bedrag (Follow the Money). The show, again for DR, explored the world of financial crime over three seasons, the last of which aired earlier this year and focused specifically on money laundering.
“After doing the second season, I felt we had spent so much time in expensive boardrooms and with CEOs that we’d told most of the stories I wanted to tell in that arena,” Gram says. “Piv Bernth, then head of DR drama [and Gabold’s successor], was very open to us pursuing a completely new direction. I came up with the idea of doing something about the laundering of drug money, which has always fascinated me as I live in a neighbourhood where there’s a lot of gang activity. I absolutely still love the first two seasons, but feeling completely free to change as much as we needed was a great starting point for fresh storytelling. DR is a place where they care a lot about the writer’s vision. They allowed us to do that even though it’s quite a big risk for the broadcaster.”
That kind of freedom is rare in television, particularly from a free-to-air public broadcaster. Gram admits it was both refreshing and daunting, but with Follow the Money’s third run earning rave reviews, “DR’s wonderful gamble in the form of maximum trust in the writer luckily paid off, and the freedom of creativity has been a true pleasure,” he says.
“I’m very proud of the third season and the way we’ve done it, especially where we have been brave and taken risks and chances because that’s really what makes interesting series at the moment. There are so many series being made right now and it’s the ones that take risks that stand out. Of course, some won’t work, but that’s part of taking risks.”
Price remembers being afforded the same freedom when he, Gram and Tobias Lindholm were writing Borgen. Of course, at that time, there were no expectations placed on them, either in Denmark or internationally. “We had a great cast, we had a reasonably good budget and all the freedom in the world, which was amazing,” he says. “We could just write the show we really wanted to write. We could basically lean back and try to make the best show, in Danish terms, we could possibly make. That very local nerve in the show made it very global. That freedom meant so much to us.”
Borgen’s success has also launched many careers, he adds. “All of a sudden – and this was the case with Ride Upon the Storm – we could finance a Danish show with money from several European broadcasters because we were known names for them and they really wanted the next shows.
“Birgitte, Pilou (Game of Thrones) and Sidse (Westworld) have also had amazing international careers that began with the Borgen years. The freedom and lack of expectation at the time we were doing it was tremendously important.”
On Borgen, “it was the fact we always had so much fun,” Gram says. “We never argued. We could disagree on something but we would always look for something even better because we trusted each other’s instincts. That’s something I remember well. It was very playful and ambitious in the way we were searching for ideas.”
Sørensen was only two years out of drama school when she landed her part in Borgen, which she credits with making her a household name in Denmark and thus providing her ticket to working abroad.
“I’m immensely proud of it, I loved doing it. I feel like I got an extra education, not just working with cameras, which you don’t really learn in drama school, but also it was an introduction for me to take an interest in politics and the world, so I feel like I grew up on that show. It’s very dear to me.”
Price is now heading into production on his next series, Ragnarok, a six-part drama for Netflix. The Norwegian-language show unfolds in the fictional small town of Edda in the middle of the Norwegian countryside and is described as a modern-day coming-of-age drama rooted in Norse mythology.
“It is a story about climate change,” Price explains of the high-school set series. “We’re asking the question, ‘Is the world coming to an end?’ I have done politics, I have done religion – now we are coming to the end of the world.”
But it is something he learned on Borgen that Price keeps with him long after that show ended, and will prove particularly useful now he is working on a series that will roll out simultaneously in more than 190 countries worldwide.
“You have to write a story that means something to you,” he says. “You cannot have all kinds of thoughts about how someone will react to it in South America. You cannot let thoughts like that disturb you too much, because you will end up confused in your choices. You have to focus on your story. If I believe it and feel it and make other people feel it, then it stands a chance of working internationally as well.”
Let the Danes begin
Four new dramas hailing from Denmark were showcased during Berlinale’s Drama Series Days event in February. DQ rounds up the selection.
Når støvet har lagt sig (When the Dust Settles, pictured)
A terrorist attack at a Copenhagen restaurant is dramatised in terrifyingly vivid fashion in the latest drama from pubcaster DR, created by Dicte’s Ida Maria Rydén and Dorte W Høgh. Yet rather than dwell on the incident itself, the 10-part limited series is a character-driven piece that focuses on a group of people both before and after the attack and examines how their lives are interwoven. It is produced by Stinna Lassen (The Team) and DR Drama and is being sold internationally by DR Sales. When the Dust Settles is slated to air locally in January 2020.
Sygeplejeskolen (The New Nurses)
Following the success of the first season last autumn, The New Nurses is returning for a second six-part run, continuing the 1950s-set story about the first intake of male nurses in post-war Denmark. It is produced by SF Studios and Senia Dremstrup for TV 2, with REinvent Studios distributing.
Den Som Dræber – Fanget af Mørket (Darkness – Those Who Kill)
A reboot of 2011’s Those Who Kill, this eight-part serialised crime thriller asks not whodunnit but ‘whydunnit’ when a profiler is called in to help save two kidnapped girls from a murderer. Commissioned by Nordic streaming service Viaplay, it is produced by Miso Film and written by Ina Bruhn. Fremantle is handing worldwide sales.
The Rebels from No 69
Based on the true story of radicalised white youths who started riots when they were evicted from a shared house in Copenhagen, The Rebels from No 69 is described as a coming-of-age series that follows 20-year-old Camilla, who leaves her parents’ home under the pretence of living with her older brother but ends up moving into the house. When the council sells the property to a church, its inhabitants barricade themselves inside, leading the army to storm the premises. Currently in pre-production, it is produced by Made in Copenhagen for TV2 and distributed by REinvent Studios
The search for a missing woman takes two police officers beneath the streets of Paris in Canal+ original series Nox. DQ braves the dark to find out more about this six-hour ‘super-movie.’
For more than a century, the catacombs beneath Paris have attracted tourists from around the world keen to glimpse a small section of the vast tunnel system that sits beneath the French capital.
Unsurprisingly, the creepy location has provided the backdrop for more than one horror film, most recently including 2014’s As Above, So Below and 2007’s Catacombs. And now French broadcaster Canal+ has become the latest to head below the Paris streets, setting six-part thriller miniseries Nox in the eerie maze of sewers and basements beneath the city.
The show stars acclaimed actor Nathalie Baye as retired cop Catherine Suzini, who is forced back into action when her daughter Julie (Maïwenn), who followed her into the police force, disappears into the sewers. Along with the help of Raphaël (Malik Zidi), her daughter’s partner, Catherine chases every clue and uses all her instincts to navigate this terrifying subterranean labyrinth.
Nox was created by Fred Cavayé, Quoc Dang Tran and Jérôme Fansten, with Tran also serving as screenwriter. Mabrouk El Mechri (Maison Close) is the series director. Gaumont and StudioCanal hold distribution rights.
The show’s origins can be traced back to producer Gaumont and Canal+ partnering with Cavayé (The Next Three Days), who had an idea for a series about a woman whose daughter disappears into the basements of Paris. The central character would be an older female police officer, unlike any other detective on television, while the programme would also explore a different side of Paris.
“From the beginning, the series was very dark,” says Isabelle DeGeorges, series producer and Gaumont’s president of French television. “We wanted to show how humanity can be dark sometimes. There are also two big emotions: the the love between mother and daughter, which grows stronger as she thinks she will never see her daughter again, and fear.”
Tran and Fansten joined the project when Cavayé began developing the series. “I have always been fascinated by tales and myths of descents into hell, like Dante or Orpheus and Eurydice,” Tran says. “So that was the concept – a mother who goes through the circles of hell to find her daughter. I thought it would be a great idea for a TV show because at that time we were in the wave of Nordic crime dramas with mysterious lakes and forests – lots of very atmospheric shows. We wanted to go back to something very urban.”
The trio wrote the plot and script outlines together before Tran took on writing duties for the miniseries, which exploits the complicated structure beneath Paris that dates back to the late 1300s.
“The sewers are a maze – if you connect them all together, it’s the distance from Paris to Moscow, so it’s huge,” says Tran. “We knew we had a fantastic playground but we also knew we had to go through each level of the story with a different degree of intensity. It had to be progressive until the finish, which I think is very strong.”
The key to Nox is not its location, however, but how the writers and director keep the tension high throughout with a cast of believable characters. “If you do not care about the characters, you’re lost,” Tran continues. “It’s a very cruel, dark and contemporary tale but what makes it enticing are the characters. Of course, you want to watch the whole show to understand what’s happening below, but mostly you want to watch the whole show because you care about the characters and you don’t want anything [bad] to happen to them.”
Writing the scripts, Tran says he channelled the inspiration of Oscar-winning writer William Goldman (Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men), whose screenwriting has a very visual style. “Usually reading a script is boring, but I learned from him that you should have something that’s very graphic and describes things around you so your imagination can work at full speed,” Tran explains.
Cavayé had initially been slated to direct the series but when he stepped down, El Mechri took over, attracted to the project by both its setup and its lead character. “The underground of Paris is a very specific setting, but logistically it’s been a nightmare,” he admits. “The sound is awful and you have a lot of problems having the crew in a very tiny space. So it was difficult, but very exciting.
“The second thing [that appealed to me] was the strong female character that was the real hero of the story, and having the opportunity to work with one of the best actresses in France.”
Production, which took place between July and November last year, was split into three sections – shooting the tunnel scenes inside a ‘sewer school’ north of Paris; studio filming for scenes including the characters’ homes and the police station; and then “tourist friendly” location shots on the streets of the city.
“It was very difficult because half of it is set underground,” DeGeorges says. “We had to create the universe of the series, to find what we could beneath Paris and create what doesn’t exist. It took four months to build the sets of underground Paris, so it was a very challenging production.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, filming underground proved the biggest task for the crew, who found themselves cramped together in unforgiving conditions, particularly when they had to find a way to light scenes that would otherwise have been pitch black, out of reach of sunlight or moonlight.
“Our focus was to keep working on the characters, even if we were in those really hard conditions,” El Mechri says. “The more we were on the surface of Paris, the more we used handheld cameras. Then the more you get underground, the more the camera stops moving, just for your eye to be able to focus on whatever you want in the frame. We kept that principle with us and tried to get something coherent through the whole series to make the audience understand that concept. You just want them to feel that the deeper you go, the more wider shots there are, giving you the chance to discover the underground of Paris by yourself instead of someone telling you where to look.”
To make things more complicated, Baye informed El Mechri when they first met that she was claustrophobic. “She told me, ‘I hate being tied up, I hate having a blindfold,’” he recalls. “But we gave her the whole treatment, the whole nine yards, throughout shooting. She was really a soldier through the series. She was invested and really great to work with, very funny and very professional.”
Prior to shooting, El Mechri uses “natural” readings to allow actors to find their characters, rather than spending time on set in rehearsals. “We don’t try to break a record in rehearsal,” he explains. “It’s a privileged relationship you have with the actor at that moment [when they’re in character] so I want to be ready for that.
“We clear out any doubts about motivation or dialogue on the table but, after that, let’s shoot the rehearsal and see what happens. My job is to keep an actor in a state where they think they’re going to have the time of their life. I just push the camera and say let’s roll, forget about the process. Just be in the situation with the characters.”
Then when the cameras were rolling, “we really did something that I don’t think has ever been done before on French television in the way we shot Paris,” El Mechri asserts. “It’s semi-documentary because we wanted to show something very realistic, so there’s a lot of handheld camera work. At the same time, we messed up the colours to give something more subjective to our take of Paris and how an underground thriller could be done. It was important to have sunny locations versus something very deep underground.”
The director describes Nox as a “super-movie” owing to its six-hour, closed-end format, differentiating it from previous TV projects he has helmed, such as period drama Maison Close, also for Canal+. “I was a huge fan of The Sopranos and the first golden age of HBO,” El Mechri says. “You cannot beat something original and, at the same time, addictive. I think our job in TV is to be entertaining enough not to have somebody touch the remote control, as opposed to the movie where you have to get a nanny, get your popcorn and tickets and go to watch something. Going to the cinema is more of a political act than just being entertained.”
Tran also sees increasing parallels between French television writers and their US and UK counterparts. “There’s no denying that British and American writers are way ahead, skill- and talent-wise,” he says. “French writers have been working very hard; we’re not there yet but we’re working on it. Hopefully it will pay off one day. It’s like pole vaulting – every time, you get an inch and another inch. That’s the story of the French writer; we’re fighting. It’s always been tough and it will always be tough. But series like Bureau des Legends and Les Revenants show there is a light of hope.”
Benedict Cumberbatch and Kelly Macdonald star in a feature-length adaptation of Ian McEwan’s acclaimed novel The Child in Time that very nearly didn’t get made. DQ chats to the stars and screenwriter Stephen Butchard about the film’s journey to the screen.
When Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch describes a script as “brilliant,” the chances are it’s in production somewhere. But until recently, that wasn’t the case for The Child in Time, Stephen Butchard’s adaptation of Ian McEwan’s award-winning novel.
Butchard had written it “some time ago” as a one-off TV film but the clamour for serials and returning series meant his script couldn’t find the backing it needed to enter production. However, once Cumberbatch signed on to star and executive produce through his fledgling SunnyMarch TV label, doors unsurprisingly opened to the project.
The Child in Time, directed by Julian Farino (Marvellous, Entourage), was subsequently picked up by UK pubcaster BBC1 and Masterpiece for US network PBS and is distributed worldwide by StudioCanal. Pinewood Television is a coproducer.
Cumberbatch plays Stephen, a children’s author who is still grieving the loss of his daughter two years after she disappeared while they were on a shopping trip together. His wife, Julie (Kelly Macdonald), has left him and best friends Charles (Stephen Campbell Moore) and Thelma (Saskia Reeves) have retired to the countryside to battle demons of their own.
“It’s ultimately a story, despite the depths it plunges, of the emotional reality of the trauma at the centre of it,” Cumberbatch says of the first McEwan novel to be adapted for television. “It’s a story about salvation and hope and trying to build a future that just accepts, encompasses and owns that loss, the absence of that child. It’s also an examination of childhood and time. It’s got quite a lot going for it other than just that horrific central axis of the drama.”
The actor notes that Stephen is a million miles from his previous television roles – “particularly the more famous one” – and admits that was part of the attraction. “That’s an appeal for me, to always be shaking things up a little bit as far as expectations are concerned,” he says, adding that it was a coincidence he took on the role just as he became a father for the second time. “The extreme nature of the situation is very unusual and horrifically relatable. I don’t think you have to be a parent to understand it.”
Cumberbatch describes Stephen as “an ordinary person in an extraordinary circumstance,” which also presented him with the challenge of playing a ‘normal’ person. “There were moments when I thought, ‘Am I doing enough?’ I’ve done a lot of roles where there’s a lot of other stuff going on, whether it’s a very particular attitude, mindset, skill set or cultural background or all of those things. I brought more of myself – as I sound and as I move and dress, even – to this one than I have before. So I felt quite naked at times, but it was also great because of that.”
The dystopian novel, which has bold political themes running through it, has largely been stripped back in Butchard’s adaptation, which instead focuses on the characters at the centre of the story.
“It’s the type of book that stays with you,” says the writer, who is also in charge of BBC2’s The Last Kingdom, itself adapted from historical novels by Bernard Cornwell. “It doesn’t stay with you because of plot or anything like that; it stays with you because of its atmosphere and tone, and that was the thing I wanted to concentrate on.
“I also knew I didn’t want to start with the abduction of the child because for me, although that’s at the core of it, that’s not what the film’s about. It’s about people dealing with that and finding their own way forward in life, having to carry that burden.”
Part of the challenge of bringing McEwan’s story to the small screen was broadening the scope of the novel, which is read entirely from Stephen’s perspective. “So you have to build them as individual characters in their own right, not wholly through the prism of Stephen,” Butchard notes. “That’s a departure [from the novel], but that always happens in any adaptation. As far as the plot goes, it follows the same stepping stones in terms of how the relationships go, but then it’s about how you visualise what is internalised in the book. What scenes can you bring into it or what dilemmas can you bring into it? People will easily recognise the book and its themes, but there are things that you kind of invent and bring in to help you move forward and put it on the screen.”
Macdonald was cast after Butchard watched the Scottish actor in Trainspotting 2, in which she reprised her role as Diane from the original 1996 film. “We thought she would be great and together [with Cumberbatch] it works really well,” he says.
Macdonald picks up: “What appealed to me when I read the script was it felt honest in its portrayal of love and loss. It’s a very emotional story but it’s not depressing. It hasn’t gone down that route. Julian’s got such a gentle touch and the way he directed it was he very much wanted an almost positive tale of love coming from loss, and I think he has managed to do that.”
The actor also praises Farino for creating a protective atmosphere on set, as the cast were often required to play out intensely emotional scenes.
“You have to do them or there’s no point in telling this story,” she says, “but it was a very safe environment with Julian at the helm. Everybody was so enthusiastic and wanted to do a great job, so it wasn’t draining. It was enjoyable, strangely, despite the subject matter. Everyone was at the top of their game so it was just a great creative place to be.”
Since her screen debut in Trainspotting, Macdonald has enjoyed a varied career across film and television, notably preferring single films to long-running series. The exception to the rule is her five-season stint on HBO’s prohibition-era drama Boardwalk Empire, which she admits was too good to refuse.
“Boardwalk ran for the perfect amount of time for that show and I’m enjoying getting different work now,” she adds. “TV series are great and it’s as close to a nine-to-five job as you can get for an actor, but not knowing what I’m going to do next does appeal and you get to have some variation there.”
In his role as an executive producer on The Child in Time, Cumberbatch talked over the script with Butchard and was also involved in hiring director Farino. “I’ve never been involved at that stage of things before so it’s intriguing,” he admits of his off-screen role. “But it’s not without its challenges, especially watching the work sooner than you should as an actor, when it’s in a very raw state and you give feedback as a producer. That was tricky. I’m excited about the moment when I’m not in something and I can look at that with much more distance.”
But with the book now 30 years old, is the story still relevant? “I think it’s absolutely timeless, I really do,” Butchard concludes. “It’s a story of the strength of the ordinary man and woman and how we actually deal and cope with events in our lives. We still find strength from somewhere, be it the love of another person or faith. For me it is a story of love and courage, and that’s why it’s timeless and why it’s still relevant.”
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.
Benedict Cumberbatch takes centre stage in The Child in Time, Stephen Butchard’s adaptation of Ian McEwan’s haunting novel about loss and grief. The star tells DQ about shaking off his more famous alter-ego and stepping into a producer role.
As the eponymous detective in Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch is used to playing an extraordinary character in ordinary situations. So his latest role, starring in an adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel The Child in Time, is something of a reversal.
“He’s an ordinary person in an extraordinary circumstance,” the actor says of Stephen Lewis, the character at the heart of the BBC1 film, which airs this Sunday. “It was a challenge. There were moments when I thought, ‘Am I doing enough?’ The engagement with the material is there but it feels very strange.
“I’ve done a lot of roles where there’s a lot of other stuff going on, whether it’s a very particular attitude or mindset, skill set or cultural background, or all of those things. So the transformative aspect of what I’ve done in a lot of those roles is very far from me and I was bringing a lot more of myself – as I sound, move and dress, even – to this one than I have before. So I felt quite naked at times but it was also great because of that.”
The Child in Time follows Stephen, a children’s author, two years after the disappearance of his daughter as he struggles find a new purpose to his life without her. His wife Julie (played by Kelly Macdonald) has left him and his best friends Charles (Stephen Campbell Moore) and Thelma (Saskia Reeves) have retired to the countryside, battling demons of their own.
In a slight departure from the dystopian source material, which also has a strong political strand, The Last Kingdom writer Stephen Butchard’s adaptation focuses on the characters at the heart of the story, producing a film about the loss of childhood and themes of grief, hope and acceptance.
“It’s ultimately a story, despite the depths it plunges, of the emotional reality of the trauma at the centre of it,” Cumberbatch says. “It’s a story about salvation and hope and trying to build a future that just accepts and encompasses and owns that loss, the absence of that child. It’s also an examination of childhood and time, and what happens in trauma with time and how the conscious and subconscious can slide. It’s got quite a lot going for it other than just that horrific central axis of the drama.”
The actor, who is as comfortable on screen as on the stage, admits the role is “a million miles” from some of his best-known work – “particularly the more famous one” — but says that was part of what drew him to the drama.
“That’s an appeal for me, to always be shaking things up a little bit as far as expectations are concerned; not doing the usual or the unusually usual. And the extreme nature of the situation is very unusual and horrifically relatable. I don’t think you have to be a parent to understand it. [I didn’t think] I could get my teeth into something emotionally raw just because I’m a new dad for the second time, it just happened that way.”
The Child in Time marks the first television commission from Cumberbatch’s SunnyMarch TV label, which coproduces with Pinewood Television and Masterpiece for PBS. StudioCanal is the distributor. As such, the actor is also an executive producer on the film.
“It’s different when you’re there with a producer’s hat on because you’re there thinking about who would be right to direct it. I’ve never been at that stage of things before,” he explains. “So it’s intriguing. It’s the first time; we’ll see how it worked, but everyone had a great experience making it, which is a great testament to us doing something right as a production team.
“I really enjoyed it. It’s not without its challenges, especially watching the work sooner than you should as an actor, in a raw very state, to then give feedback about what you feel as a producer. That was tricky. I’m excited about the moment when I’m not in something and I can look at that with much more distance. It’s very peculiar. It’s always horrible, it’s never nice. The way you look, the way you do things, it’s horrible and, trust me, the internet is full of hate but it’s nothing compared with the self-critic in your head for brutality. I’ve said it all before they have.”
SunnyMarch is already building up a slate of projects, which began with documentaries and is now expanding further into high-end drama on the back of The Child in Time. Cumberbatch will also star in Melrose, an adaptation of Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels for Sky Atlantic and Showtime.
“It’s one thing with me at the front of it,” he says of Melrose. “There are lots of things we have on our slate that do fulfil the promise of diversity and giving a bolder place for women both behind and in front of the camera. What I’m doing in the immediate future doesn’t reflect that because we’re trying to get it off the ground and do things that are probably a bit more expected in the tundra and with me involved.”
Until those projects evolve, The Child in Time is “a big deal for us,” Cumberbatch admits. “It’s the first McEwan adaptation for television so that was a huge boon for us. We were very excited about that.” Looking toward the future, SunnyMarch is seeking “diversity in every sense,” the actor adds, “not just to do with opportunities for all but also the range of material with those opportunities, so genre-wise, large screen, small screen, live events, found material as well as published or unpublished fiction or biographical work. We’re trying to create as diverse a slate as possible in every way.”
But after three seasons and 13 episodes as Sherlock – and a somewhat series-ending epilogue to the most recent instalment – is there more to come? “Maybe,” he teases.
Never one to shy away from a challenge, Adam Price’s first major TV project brought the machinations of a coalition government to Danish screens with Borgen, which picked up an International Bafta during its three-season run.
Now he is taking on religion in Ride Upon the Storm, with two seasons of the show already commissioned by Denmark’s DR and Arte France.
Sitting alongside star Lars Mikkelsen, Price tells DQ how he hopes to address the big questions of life and religion in the show, which ostensibly focuses on the family of Mikkelsen’s priest Johannes, his wife and, in particular, their two sons, who each choose different religious paths.
Ride Upon the Storm is produced by SAM Productions and distributed by StudioCanal.
New Doctor Who star Jodie Whittaker plays a medical imposter in Trust Me, a thriller penned by real-life doctor Dan Sefton. DQ hears from the duo about making the show.
Doctorates appear to be arriving like buses for actress Jodie Whittaker, who will become a doctor not once but twice over the next few months.
The actor was recently announced as the 13th incarnation of the BBC’s famous Time Lord in Doctor Who – the first woman to take the prestigious primetime title in the show’s 54-year history. The star, best known for her role in Broadchurch, will replace the outgoing Peter Capaldi when he regenerates during the upcoming Christmas special.
Before then, however, she’ll be seen on BBC1 as another medic as she takes the lead role in gripping drama Trust Me. She plays Cath Hardacre, who, after being suspended from her job as a nurse for whistleblowing, steals the identity of a doctor friend who has emigrated to New Zealand.
She moves from Sheffield to Edinburgh to work as an A&E doctor, but it’s not easy to shake off her past. Not only is she unqualified but her bitter ex Karl (played by Blake Harrison) and a hungry investigative journalist Sam Kelly (Nathan Walsh) are both on her case.
Written by Dan Sefton, best known for ITV’s The Good Karma Hospital and Sky1’s Delicious, Trust Me plunges viewers into a world the writer knows well, as he also works part time as an A&E doctor. StudioCanal is distributing the series internationally.
“As a doctor, I’ve encountered imposters in real life. There was actually one in the department where I worked,” he says. “Often they are well liked and competent; I’ve also met qualified doctors who are frankly dangerous. For me there’s a delicious irony in the idea that the imposter doctor is better than the real thing, both clinically and with patients.”
It took him seven years from first reading a book about imposters to getting his drama made. “My first thought was making it about a pair of identical twins. The story changed in various ways until I came up with the idea of a nurse impersonating a doctor,” he recalls. “The problem was a lot of people didn’t believe it was credible, even though I, as a doctor, was telling them it was credible – there have been so many stories of people doing it.
“It was really frustrating because I knew it was a good idea and I was worried that someone else would get there first. It wasn’t until Red Production Company came on board that they really listened to the story and immediately saw the potential in it.”
Whittaker says she was hooked from the moment she read the first script. “It really fascinated me because it went in a completely different direction to how I thought it was going to go,” she says of the series, which launches on BBC1 on August 8. “At the beginning, when she’s suspended for whistleblowing and loses her job, it could have gone in so many ways. The fact she takes on a new identity isn’t the way I thought it would go. I love the fact that her choices are quite morally dubious; they certainly aren’t black and white.”
Sefton says he looked at US shows where the lead is often an anti-hero. No one walking into an NHS hospital would like to think they are being treated by an unqualified doctor, yet at the same time Cath is good at her job. The story is told from her point of view and the viewer is on her side – at least at first.
“I enjoyed the push-and-pull feel of playing with the audience’s sympathies,” the writer explains. “She is a good person but she shouldn’t be doing this. She’s an honest woman who has done one dishonest thing; there will be consequences. I read a lot about the different types of imposters; there are far more men than women. Men always do it for egotistical reasons; they want to be something impressive. But the women generally do it for a way of getting on in life.
“In this show Cath is giving herself the opportunities she’d never had. But once she’s made that choice, that changes who she is. She begins to like her new life and that’s where it becomes complicated.”
Whittaker agrees: “It’s really interesting to play flawed characters. I would be terrified by the choice this protagonist has made – I’m a crap secret-keeper. Often we are surrounded by people who do things that we don’t agree with. For the audience not to agree with her but still be emotionally behind her is an interesting thing to play.”
Sefton worked as a medical consultant on the Glasgow and Edinburgh set (the show was co-executive produced by Gaynor Holmes for BBC Scotland), helping the cast find their way around a busy emergency department. He also allowed the actors to experiment on him with minor procedures – up to a point where the producers had to step in because they were worried he could sue them for health and safety breaches.
“I kept volunteering to be a guinea pig,” he admits. “But the producers were worried I would get hurt and sue them. I still encouraged the actors to stick needles in me. The only way you understand the tension of doing something like that – of crossing a line – is when you do something like that to another human.”
Although Sefton has scripted medical dramas including Doctors, Casualty and Holby City, he says he deliberately made the medical stories in Trust Me different. “There is a horror show element to it,” he says. “A lot of things Cath has to tackle are the things that still scare doctors. She sees some very nasty cases; they all do.
“In episode two, you see Sharon Small’s character, Dr Brigitte McAdams, talk about the patients she has killed and how much that has affected her. People know about medical mistakes but don’t see how it can also hurt the doctors.
“Because this drama isn’t about the medical stuff, there is a nihilism which you don’t normally get as you don’t need to resolve the medical stories. In real life there is often no easy answer, there is no meaning to the problems people come in with. They aren’t resolved. I want this to be a tough watch because even though she is doing a bad thing, she is still turning up there every day to help people.”
From a pair of mystery dramas and the introduction of the ‘female Columbo’ to the story of a film director forced to make a new version of King Kong for a power-mad dictator, French drama is set to enjoy a breakout year. DQ casts its eye over some of the new series coming to the small screen.
Baron Noir season two The ‘French House of Cards’ returns. Produced by Kwai for Canal+ and distributed by StudioCanal.
Why was Baron Noir season one so successful around the world?
Producer Thomas Bourguignon: Politics is back – and even if Baron Noir is about French politicians, it deals with the same problems every politician has to face. That’s the reason the show reaches a global audience. The style of the series also had a great impact. Baron Noir is a thriller, a very tense drama with a cinematographic style, a dramaturgy you can’t escape, and editing that makes it as addictive as possible. The performance of the actors is also astonishing. It’s a universal story of revenge, which is one of the most powerful motivations in a drama.
How does season two move the story forward? We shot season two during the French presidential and legislative elections. No one is capable of predicting what is going to happen, so we have decided to follow our own story. What’s important is that the preoccupations and the big picture of the politicians’ lives are accurate and realistic, whoever is running the country in real life. So in season two, Amélie Dorendeu (Anna Mouglalis) is elected president and Philippe Rickwaert (Kad Merad, pictured) is her special advisor. But democracy is threatened by two evil forces: jihadism and the far right. Our two lead characters become ever more divided and separate from each other and fight to save the republic.
What are the biggest challenges in producing the series? We started shooting with four scripts out of eight, because of the availability of the cast. It was a challenging race to have the final scripts ready to shoot and keep the quality.
Zone Blanche (Black Spot) A local sheriff seeks the truth about a mysterious town. Produced by Ego Productions and Be-Films for France 2 and distributed by AB International Distribution.
Where did the idea for Black Spot come from?
Series creator Mathieu Missoffe: Based on initial conversations with producer Vincent Mouluquet, I originally set out to build a strong mystery set in an isolated place that would feel familiar and strange at the same time. We knew this had to be a very visual show to stand out, so we moved away from traditional urban crime shows, instead focusing on a small, colourful community surrounded by hostile and untamed nature. This is how our fictitious town of Villefranche came to life, a place that has its own rules and atmosphere, with a blend of influences ranging from Twin Peaks to Nordic noir.
What is the style or tone of the series? The show borrows from different genres to create its own unique identity. It doesn’t shy away from gritty crime scenes, but we twisted familiar crime show elements by adding a western movie look and occasionally flirting with fantasy as far as the surrounding nature is concerned. A slight touch of comedy is also part of the mix – a necessary addition to create the kind of entertainment we feel is relevant for today’s general audience.
How is French drama evolving? The good news is that most of the old taboos that used to drag down French fiction have now collapsed. Politics and religion are back on the map, while darker and edgier stories are gaining traction. It’s definitely an exciting time, with our traditional realistic auteur shows now able to coexist with series that are trying to open new doors in entertainment with exotic locations, big-budget coproductions or new genres. At the same time, talents in front of and behind the camera are finally crossing over between film and television, resulting in even more opportunities.
Capitaine Marleau (Chief Inspector Marleau) A ‘female Columbo’ tackles crime with her own offbeat methods. Produced by Passion Films for France 3 and distributed by France TV Distribution.
What are the origins of the show?
Producer Gaspard de Chavagnac: Our lead actor Corinne Masiero (far left) first portrayed Capitaine Marleau in French miniseries Entre Vents et Marées (Between Winds and Tides), directed by Josée Dayan. She played the part with such wit and originality that we immediately decided to pitch France 3 the character as the heroine of a new cop series. The network did not hesitate long before ordering a 90-minute pilot.
How was the series developed with France 3? After the success of the pilot, written by Elsa Marpeau and again directed by Josée Dayan, France 3 agreed to develop two more episodes and then three others. We are currently producing the second season.
How did you cast the series? As Masiero was not very well known, we sought famous guest stars for each episode. Gérard Depardieu agreed to appear in the first episode, followed by other actors familiar to French viewers – including Victoria Abril, Muriel Robin, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Sandrine Bonnaire and Pierre Arditi. The result was an average of 4.3 million viewers for our first four episodes.
La Forêt (The Forest) A small town is gripped by fear when people begin to disappear in a mysterious forest. Produced by Carma Films for France 3 and distributed by About Premium Content (APC).
Tell us about the show.
APC founder and joint CEO Emmanuelle Guilbart: The Forest is a modern crime series with a gripping story set against a mysterious background. An audience-friendly thriller at heart, it does not, however, shy away from social themes, setting out to provide a realistic portrayal of issues surrounding today’s youth.
How would you describe the writing process? Contrary to the current writers room trend, The Forest was written by a single screenwriter, Delinda Jacobs. She came to us with a very precise idea of what the show would look like and the commissioning channel, which wanted to modernise its line-up, was very supportive from the start.
What was the biggest challenge during production? The biggest challenge for us was finding the right actors. We wanted the story to feel real, with life-like characters and true emotions, so we spent a lot of time looking for people who were able to convey this feeling to the audience. We think we found the right team with Alexia Barlier (pictured left, 13 Hours), Suzanne Clément (Mommy, Laurence Anyways) and Samuel Labarthe (The Little Murders of Agatha Christie) for the main roles.
What new stories are being told in French drama? French drama has always had a social focus and a taste for realistic and intimate stories. What’s changing is that there is now a new appeal for modern narrative forms, new genres and writing techniques. The Forest is definitely part of that movement, keeping in line with parts of the French cinematic tradition but opening up to new and highly effective ways of telling stories.
Les Témoins (Witnesses) season two The return of the atmospheric crime thriller. Produced by Cinétévé for France 2 and distributed by Newen Distribution.
Why was Witnesses season one so successful around the world?
Director Hervé Hadmar: The plot, the atmosphere and detective Sandra Winckler (Marie Dompnier, below right). The audience just wants to know who this woman is.
How does season two move the story forward?Witnesses is, of course, the story of Sandra. In season one, she has learned that the ‘ideal family’ does not exist. Her husband is not Prince Charming – and Sandra herself is not so perfect. At the beginning of season two, she’s living alone with her two daughters. She still believes in love, of course, but has to ask herself, ‘Is love the greatest danger?’ As for the main plot, it centres on unravelling what happened to 15 men who are found dead, totally frozen, on a bus. It emerges that they all loved the same woman, Catherine Keemer (Audrey Fleurot, below left). Who is Catherine Keemer? Is she responsible for their deaths? Season two explores the relationship between Sandra and Catherine.
How would you describe your directing process? I do not fight against the ‘principe de réalité’ – pressures of time or accidental events. I’m trying to use those little incidents, bad weather, for example, to create something new. I have learned to be excited by asking myself, ‘What the hell is going to happen today?’
What is the style or tone of the show? A Nordic noir with a delicate, strange and almost hypnotic atmosphere.
How is French drama evolving? With more mature themes and artistic values. Challenging ourselves and challenging the audience is very important. We have learned to take risks but there is still a lot of progress to make. For that, let’s hope success will continue to knock on our doors.
Transferts (Transfer) Five years after a man drowns, his mind is transferred into someone else’s body. But at a time when ‘transfers’ are outlawed, he must live undercover to avoid detection. Produced by Filmagine, Be-Films and Panama Productions for Arte, and distributed by Lagardère Studios Distribution.
What are the origins of the show?
Producer/co-writer Patrick Benedek: The series grew out of my friendship with Claude Scasso. For a while we’d been wanting to make a thrilling sci-fi series, aware that in France, at the time, no network wanted to go down that road. It was very liberating for me – I could give free rein to all my beginner’s mistakes! I didn’t imagine for a minute that the project would see the light of day.
How would you describe the writing process? Claude and I worked on the conception and construction of episodes together, in meetings and with notes. We spent entire days projecting ourselves into our characters and our universe – with a creative purpose but also with a keen critical eye on each other’s proposals – until we got that exhilarating feeling that we had something. That’s the advantage of knowing each other well, of not having an oversized ego and of being a team. After that, Claude would write a first draft of the treatments, which I would then rework. Finally, he would go over what I wrote, and I would go over what he did, until we were both satisfied.
What were the biggest challenges during production? In France, it’s always the same problem – do as much as possible as well as possible with the little financial resources we have. This means always knowing how to get the most out of your resources; knowing how to distribute them while maintaining your artistic vision.
Kim Kong While filming in Asia, a director is kidnapped by a neighbouring dictatorship and ordered to make a new version of King Kong. Produced by Kwai and Armance for Arte and distributed by FremantleMedia International.
What are the origins of the series?
Producer Thomas Bourguignon: The idea came from Simon Jablonka, the screenwriter. He told me the story of a South Korean director, Shin Sang-ok, who was kidnapped by North Korea in the late 1970s and told to direct movies, notably a remake of Godzilla, which was called Pulgasari. We wanted to make a show about this situation, with a guy who is kidnapped by a dictator who wants him to make a movie. The other inspiration was Misery, Stephen King’s novel with a similar theme, being about an author who’s kidnapped by an deranged fan and forced rewrite his last book because she’s not happy with it. But our story is not about a specific regime or specific country; it’s really about creativity and constraints.
How do you balance the drama with elements of comedy?The situation is very dramatic from the beginning to the end, but in a similar style to movies like Gold Rush, M.A.S.H. or The Ladykillers. The subject is very serious and dramatic but we build in several contradictions that create comedy. It’s a question of life and death but the director has to deal with an inept crew, equipment that dates from the Cold War and the crazy demands of the leader, so there are lots of elements where you can do nothing but laugh.
What was the biggest challenge? Mostly the casting and the language (with the show being filmed in French and Chinese). But also working out where we were going to shoot. As our dictatorship doesn’t exist in real life, we looked for a location for months before deciding to film 90% of the series in a studio in Paris.
A family of priests are at the centre of Herrens Veje (Ride Upon the Storm), Danish writer Adam Price’s follow-up to political drama Borgen.
From a topic that may not immediately seem the most exciting – coalition politics in Denmark – Borgen creator Adam Price (pictured above) crafted a captivating drama that gripped audiences around the world. And now, turning his attention to religion in the forthcoming Herrens Veje (Ride Upon the Storm), the writer is hoping lightning will strike for a second time.
The series reunites Price with producer Camilla Hammerich and Danish broadcaster DR to tell the story of a family of Danish priests. While one son has followed his father into the priesthood, his brother has chosen another path.
The cast is headed by Lars Mikkelsen and Ann Eleonora Jørgensen as the parents, with Simon Sears and Morten Hee Andersen as their grown-up sons.
“I can think of no other broadcaster in Denmark that would be willing to tell a story that is as tricky, difficult, demanding and potentially provocative as this will be,” Price says. “My last show dealt with politics and I thought, ‘Where do I move from this?’ You can [take inspiration from] so many emotions as a writer – the emotion for this show is definitely curiosity.
“In the times we are living in now, it’s almost more political to write about religion than about politics – because when we’re talking about integration, immigration, social issues, geopolitics and terrorism, we are in fact dealing with religious issues. It is one of the great topics of our time.”
It’s the family at the centre of the story through which such issues are explored. “If you want a compelling story, you need to tell it from the point of view of the characters,” says Price. “It would be very difficult to talk about religion from too aloof a position, to talk about great ideas, religious history. It’s too big. You need to pull it down to a human level. The characters must always be at the heart of the story.”
DR is producing Ride Upon the Storm as a coproduction with French-German network Arte and SAM le Français, in association with distributor StudioCanal. The series, which is being filmed in Denmark and Spain, will debut this fall with 10 episodes, while DR has already ordered a second 10-episode season scheduled to air in autumn 2018.
Alongside Forbrydelsen (The Killing) and Broen/Bron (The Bridge), Borgen is regularly held up as one of the TV dramas that brought Danish – and Scandinavian – drama front and centre on the world stage.
“Nobody ever thought Borgen would travel or moderately interest an audience because, when you pitch the series, everybody should be running away screaming,” Price jokes of its niche political content. “Religion is definitely just as difficult a main topic as politics, but if you have captivating character stories then you can talk about all the difficult things on top of that. That was the way we told the stories of Borgen so I’m delving into the same bag of tricks. I hope it will still work.”
With the show in development for two-and-a-half years, Price spent six months working on Ride Upon the Storm by himself before setting up a small writers room, just as he did with Borgen, which was penned by just three writers for the first two seasons. Staff writers Karina Dam and Poul Berg joined Price in writing the first 14 episodes across Ride Upon the Storm’s two planned seasons, while Price and Dam are completing the final six episodes together.
The writers room, however, was more than just a collaborative effort. Price explains: “It was very important for me to have different attitudes of faith in the writers room – Karina is a Christian, Poul is probably an agnostic and I guess I am a non-believer myself, but a very curious one. It’s important in a show
like this that we take religion and faith extremely seriously.
“I’m not here to make people not believe, and the show is also not there to make people believe. What we really want with the show, apart from telling hopefully compelling, character-driven stories about faith and religion, is to make viewers wonder about
faith and religious issues and to make people discuss them.”
As the head writer, Price is typically hands-on across the entire project, overseeing up to six drafts of each script before they are approved for shooting. “I try to sketch out the full season because we need to know what we are moving towards so we don’t invent the world anew every time we storyline and pitch an episode,” he says. “It’s very important to know the end point on the map, so that while we can make many interesting and meaningful detours, there is a very clear course set for the whole story.
“The actors know the characters’ mid-points and end points in the season. We discuss that vividly with them every time we meet. If a character is to suffer a nervous breakdown in two or three episodes’ time, the actor has a right to know so they can build up to that moment and it won’t be a steep mountain to climb in the actual episode. It’s so important that we can see small traits of [such a plot point] in the way the character behaves a few episodes in advance.”
Research is another part of Price’s writing process, but he says it’s important not to become “lost” in details that can limit creativity in the writers room. A priest has also been on hand as a religious advisor, sitting in the room once a month to listen to pitches for the next block of episodes.
“With reference to Borgen, it’s one thing to step on a person’s political beliefs, but it’s another entirely to step on their religious faith,” Price explains. “We need to know when we’re stepping on any toes; we can’t step too wildly and in all directions without researching or planning quite thoroughly. This is definitely territory where people can be very upset. It can and will probably happen.”
After the success of Borgen, which ran on DR for three seasons and starred Sidse Babett Knudsen as the Danish prime minister, Price admits he tries not to concern himself with the expectations over his follow-up series, which is coproduced by the SAM label founded by Price, fellow writer Søren Sveistrup (The Killing) and producer Meta Louise Foldager Sørensen (A Royal Affair) in 2014.
Also on SAM’s slate is Gidseltagningen (Below the Surface), a hostage drama for Denmark’s Kanal 5, and Mercur (Something’s Rockin’), a radio station-focused show that launched in March on TV2 Charlie. The company also has projects in development in Denmark and the UK, as well as the US with HBO and AMC.
“The Danish industry has changed – it has become much more international,” Price says. “We should just be grateful that we’re able to finance these shows with big countries in Europe and across the world.
“Now they know our shows – and if we can do something as good as The Killing, they want to be a part of it. That’s a great privilege because it allows us to tell even more ambitious stories. We are standing on the shoulders of our own success, which is very demanding but also a great privilege.”
While locations often bring a series to life, few had as much impact as the setting of Midnight Sun, both on and off screen, as the drama’s leading actors tell DQ.
The midnight sun is a natural phenomenon that occurs each summer north of the Arctic circle and south of the Antarctic circle, where the sun is still visible at midnight. Around the summer solstice, there is 24 hours of daylight.
On television, it has been the subject of an episode of Canadian drama Northern Exposure, which examined the impact of the midnight sun on the residents of an Alaskan town, and an episode of The Twilight Zone, whereby the effect was created when the Earth was put on collision course with the sun.
The setting was taken to the extreme on Swedish-French coproduction Midnight Sun, known locally as Midnattssol and Jour Polaire respectively and currently airing in the UK on Sky Atlantic following a deal with distributor StudioCanal. The story sees French police officer Kahina Zadi (played by Leïla Bekhti) travel to Kiruna, the northernmost town in Sweden, to investigate the brutal murder of a French citizen during the midnight sun period.
With the help of Swedish DA Anders Harnesk (Gustaf Hammarsten) and a member of the Sami (Sofia Jannok), a local indigenous tribe, she comes to realise the killing and more that follow are part of a 10-year conspiracy involving many of the town’s inhabitants.
The series, produced by Nice Drama and Atlantique Productions, comes from co-creators, writers and directors Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein, who were the main draw for Hammarsten (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) to sign up for the eight-episode series.
“Sweden is a small country so if there are talented directors, you know them or know of them. I had wanted to work with Måns and Björn for a long time because I respect them,” the actor tells DQ. “Then they asked me to read something and I was just thinking, ‘Yes please.’ And when I read it, I was even more pleased because they had something really fantastic and special. I was really happy.
“Some things just look good on the paper but the way they worked, it was very important to keep it local and not make it too flashy. For an actor, that’s fantastic. You know you have a good part and there is fantastic scenery around.”
The appearance of the Sami people in a story set in their homeland, located inside the Arctic Circle, was also an attractive proposition for Jannok, who is herself a member of the indigenous tribe.
“Sami is a small community and we had been hearing about these guys doing research for a couple of years, so I knew they had done their homework and I had seen who they had been speaking to,” Jannok reveals. “That’s why I thought it was an interesting project – it gives an image of today and brings issues to the surface that aren’t talked about ever, like the racism against Sami people. People started to debate these issues, both in Sami communities and in Sweden. That’s a bonus if you get people to think about not only the thriller story but also identity, diversity, the many languages and the collisions between the different characters.”
Hailing from the region where the series is shot, and with personal experience of the midnight sun phenomenon, Jannok believes it’s a breath of fresh air to see a story like this told in this unique landscape.
“For people who live there every day, it’s not extraordinary,” she says. “We don’t even have a word for it, it’s just the sun. It’s nice to change the perspective and to not always be in the capital or the cities.”
Hammarsten continues: “It would be very easy to make it a French-Swedish series where there’s a clash between the two cultures, but all of a sudden you go the third way. It’s almost like the landscape has its own part. It’s like the settings have a role.”
Bekhti adds: “The main character is nature and everything around it. This has somehow fed my role and my character. The scenery seems to be moving literally and figuratively as well, fermenting somehow, just as what’s happening to my character and this impression of endless day. It fed the character and invites the viewer to discover a new part of the world.”
French actor Bekhti admits she was particularly affected by working in the unique environment, describing the shoot – which took place during the midnight sun – as a “strong human experience.”
“I forgot where I was, I lost my bearings almost,” she explains. “I slept very little. But instead of being scared by the experience, I thought I would exploit it and make use of it for my character. It was an amazing experience to live there in that space, even if it was physically demanding. It gave more insight into my character and the location helped me.”
Hammarsten picks up: “Leila was the hero of this show. I could go home to my apartment in Stockholm in the weekends but she was up there all the time with the sun and these crazy Swedes! Leila was really up there on her own, so I felt she also needed me – we had a pact. I knew of Måns and Björn but I didn’t know who this French star was. But she’s totally down to earth and a fantastic actor.”
Despite the challenges of the setting, Hammarsten balks at the thought of filming the series anywhere else. “How could you shoot this in a studio?” he says. “Maybe you could if you had an enormous amount of money. For me, it was the same but less of a struggle. We were there for a long time, in the midnight sun. It gave us something.”
For Jannok, though the location may have been familiar, the task at hand was not, with Midnight Sun being her first acting job.
“The new thing for me was acting, that was the challenge,” she exclaims. “So I was glad I was being taken care of. Everyone was so nice and friendly. It was good doing my first time acting at home. I used to ski past the house of my character, so this was home. We don’t sleep during the summer! We’re better at sleeping during the dark winters, but it was nice being home.”
Though herself an experienced actor, with credits including The Prophet and All that Glitters, Bekhti also faced a new challenge when scenes called for her to speak in English – the shared language used by Swedish and French characters in the series, which also features the native Sami language.
“I didn’t speak English at all,” she says. “I was coached for two or three months, six hours a day. It meant I was really thrown into the deep end, I was immediately immersed in that character. I didn’t want to lose the actor’s part in it all. English was an instrument, so when I was frightened, the first thing that came out was in French. That meant it was more realistic.”
Midnight Sun made waves as the first ever French-Swedish coproduction, with many similar cross-border partnerships now in the works. It remains to be seen whether anyone else will attempt to stage another series in this dazzling environment.
Season two of BBC1’s crime drama The Missing ended this week after eight gripping episodes. Not everyone enjoyed the complexity or darkness of the show but those who stuck it out were rewarded with superb acting, compelling storytelling and a set of fresh and interesting locations, ranging from Switzerland to Iraq.
The show’s achievement is made all the more remarkable by the fact it is an English-language show with a French cop as its moral compass.
The show kicked off in October with an audience of 7.8 million (seven-day consolidated data). From there it dropped to around 6.5-7 million per episode, which is still a strong performance.
For the most part it was also warmly received by critics, who felt it managed to successfully tie up its numerous loose ends. Speaking of the final episode, The Guardian said it was “fabulous” and that it “builds and builds in stomach-clenching tension.”
The Telegraph’s critic was a mid-season convert, saying: “It turns out my cynicism was unfounded. The fast-paced, powerful denouement satisfied both heart and head; loose ends from the drama’s dual timelines were tied up; every plot thread reached its resolution. This was fiendishly plotted, stylishly delivered TV.”
With a strong UK performance in the bag, The Missing 2 will now go into distribution courtesy of All3Media International. Already onboard is US premium pay TV platform Starz, which also aired season one. Given that the first season sold well around the world, it’s likely the new series will do well.
The show, which was created by Jack and Harry Williams, is also likely to feature prominently on the awards circuit, given the response to the first season. Although The Missing season one didn’t manage to bag any high-profile awards, it did show up on several shortlists, gaining a nomination for Best Miniseries or TV Film at the Golden Globes in 2015.
The big question now is whether there will be a third season of the show, which is an anthology series linked by the presence of the French cop referred to above (Julien Baptiste). The actor who plays him, Tcheky Karyo, is keen to reprise. But the Williams brothers have not yet committed. They are busy with other projects and will only return to The Missing if they feel they have the right idea. One possibility is to pick up the story from season one, which does have the potential to be brought back to life.
In other Williams brothers news, there are reports this week that US premium pay TV channel Cinemax has jumped on board Rellik, a new limited series that the brothers are making for BBC1 in the UK. The title of the show is Killer spelled backwards, reflecting the fact that the new series will tell a serial killer’s story in reverse.
Another show in the headlines this week is the Franco-Swedish drama Midnight Sun, which has been sold to pay TV channel Sky Atlantic in the UK by StudioCanal. Created by Mårlind & Stein (Bron/Broen), the eight-part series is a thriller set in a small mining community in remote northern Sweden where a series of brutal murders conceal a secret conspiracy.
It has already aired on Canal+ in France, where it was the highest rated Création Originale series launch in three years. It also did well on Sweden’s SVT, where it attracted an audience of 1.8 million (39.7% share).
Commenting on the deal, Zai Bennett, director of programmes at Sky Entertainment UK and Ireland, said: “Midnight Sun is a brilliant addition to our line-up in 2017, with new award-winning drama airing exclusively on the channel every month. I’ve no doubt our customers will love this clever and thought-provoking thriller.”
Sky Atlantic is the latest in a long line of broadcasters to pick up the Canal+/SVT/Filmpool Nord copro from Atlantique Productions and Nice Drama. Already onboard are ZDF in Germany, SBS in Australia, HOT in Israel, NRK in Norway, DR in Denmark, RUV in Iceland, MTV3 in Finland, VRT in Belgium, and Lumière in Benelux. The show also received the Audience Award at SeriesMania.
Katrina Neylon, exec VP sales and marketing at StudioCanal, added: “Since its launch at Mipcom in October, Midnight Sun has gone from strength to strength on the international stage. Its high production values, alongside an absorbing and internationally relevant storyline, offer great appeal across multiple platforms.”
Also this week, DQ’s sister platform C21 is reporting that Amazon has picked up the US SVoD rights for critically acclaimed drama The A Word. The series, which looks at the impact on a family when their youngest child is diagnosed with autism, is based on an Israeli show called Yellow Peppers.
Distributed internationally by Keshet International (KI), the first season of the show was a surprise hit on BBC1 and a second season has been commissioned. In addition to Amazon, it will air on Sundance TV in the US, underlining a growing trend toward pay TV/SVoD rights sharing.
Commenting on the Amazon deal, Keren Shahar, chief operating officer at KI and president of distribution, said: “The fact that Amazon has acquired SVoD rights to both seasons of the series is a testament to its quality, appeal and performance to date.”
On the cancellation front, Showtime in the US has announced that Masters of Sex has been dropped after four seasons. The news is not that big a surprise. The show, which features Michael Sheen as William Masters, the real-life American gynaecologist who pioneered research into human sexuality, attracted an average of 453,000 for its final run.
This is down from the 595,000 who watched season three, the 800,000 who watched season two and the 1.07 million who followed the debut season in 2013. An IMDb score of eight reinforces the fact that the show never quite hit the heights of the other shows doing the rounds in pay TV/SVoD (Fargo, Stranger Things, Westworld, Game of Thrones etc).
The show also didn’t perform well when compared with other Showtime titles like Homeland, Shameless, Ray Donovan and Billions. Interestingly, another Showtime series, The Affair, has just come back for season three with pretty modest ratings — suggesting that it might also struggle to get a recommission at the end of this run. If this is the case, then it leaves Showtime very reliant on a small handful of moderately good scripted series.
Against this backdrop, a watershed moment for the channel will be the return of iconic drama Twin Peaks in 2017. Possibly it’s also time to listen to the fan chat and bring back Dexter, the serial killer drama that defined Showtime for so many seasons.
Nordic drama has made its mark on the international stage over the last few years. But what’s coming next? A good source of information is the Nordisk Film & TV Fund, which provides regular updates on shows in development, production and distribution. So this week we look at some of the latest developments from the region.
Next Summer: Bob Film is remaking Norwegian comedy Next Summer for Kanal5/Discovery in Sweden. The original version aired on TVNorge/Discovery and was one of the country’s most popular local TV dramas. The Swedish remake, which will air in 2017, centres on a man who shares a summer house with his wife and in-laws in Stockholm’s archipelago. Bob Film also remade the Finnish drama Nurses for TV4 Sweden. That show, known locally as Syrror, launched on October 19, attracting an audience of one million. It’s part of wider trend of local Nordic adaptations that also includes Gåsmamman and Black Widows. Bob Film is also working with Sweetwater on a crime drama called Missing (Saknad) for CMore and TV4, which focuses on the investigation into the murder of a young girl in a Swedish Bible-belt town.
Bonusfamiljen (The Bonus Family): Nordisk Film & TV Fond has just allocated a total of NOK9.4m (US$1.14m) to a slate of new film and TV projects. One of them is season two of The Bonus Family, a comedy drama about a recomposed family and the complications that go with it. Season one is due to air on SVT in 2017, as well as on NRK, YLE, RUV and DR. Season two, granted NOK2.4m (US$290,000), started filming in September and will continue until February 2017.
Downshifters: This Finnish series has just secured a French sales rep (ACE Entertainment) while Sweden’s Anagram has optioned remake rights for its own market. The 10-part comedy from Yellow Film & TV has been generating a good buzz since it launched on OTT service Elisa in late 2015. More recently, it aired on YLE2 and established itself as the second most watched programme. The series tells the story of a couple who face financial problems and are forced to cut down on their extravagant lifestyle. A second series, Upshifters, will launch on Elisa in December 2016.
The Rain: News of this Danish show has been doing the rounds in the last couple of weeks. Produced by Miso Film (Dicte, 1864, Acquitted), The Rain is a dystopian drama commissioned by Netflix. The series is set in Copenhagen 10 years after a biological catastrophe that wipes out most of the population in Scandinavia and sees two young siblings embark on a search for safety. Guided only by their father’s notebook about the virus and the hazards of this new world, they start a dangerous journey through the country and join up with a group of other young survivors. Miso has had a busy few months, with the second season of Acquitted recently launching on TV2 in Norway.
Midnight Sun: This Swedish/French crime show recently debuted to 1.39 million viewers (38.1% share) on SVT1 in the Sunday 21.00 slot. According to the channel, this performance is comparable with The Bridge (Bron/Broen). Midnight Sun also trended at number two on Twitter – and online viewers, which are still to be added to the count, could pass 200,000. The show also secured strong reviews in the Swedish media, with five stars out of five in Aftonbladet. Elsewhere in Scandinavia, Midnight Sun will premiere on RUV on December 5. DR, NRK and MTV3 are likely to air the show, which is distributed internationally by StudioCanal, in early 2017.
Nobel: Trapped and Nobel were among 26 European fiction TV series selected for the Prix Europa Media awards last month. Trapped, an Icelandic crime show, won Best European TV Series while Nobel, a Norwegian political/war drama, won Best European TV Movie/Miniseries. Nobel was described as “a precisely crafted original script, perfectly executed and directed, that takes the viewer on a journey into a world of lies, betrayal, mistrust and political games.” Produced by Monster Scripted for NRK, Nobel secured 800,000 viewers for its first episode across NRK1 and NRK streaming service NRK.TV. Both Trapped and Nobel were supported by Nordisk Film & TV Fond. Nobel was directed by Per Olav Sørensen, who also directed The Heavy Water War.
Heartless: In a recent interview with The Nordisk Film & TV Fond, SVoD service Walter Presents’ curator Walter Iuzzolino said 25-30% of the platform’s shows are from Scandinavia. In terms of titles doing well, he mentioned Heartless: “Our curated programme goes way beyond the tradition of Nordic Noir that has been established by the BBC. I would say that 30% of our audience is 16 to 34, the rest 35-plus. The sexy Danish vampire series Heartless, for example, was a huge hit among 16-24s. Normally I hate fantasy and sci-fi but it’s elegant, poetic, cleverly done and an interesting portrayal of a family – a sort of vampire version of The Legacy. It was a huge success, pushed only by word of mouth.”
Watchdog: At last month’s Mipcom market in Cannes, ZDF Enterprises announced an exclusive first-look rights deal for all scripted content from the Finnish producer Fisher King. Matti Halonen, Fisher King MD and producer, said: “ZDF Enterprises is a well-established company that can give a lot of support to a smaller player like Fisher King.” The first joint project that ZDFE is working on is the upcoming political thriller series Watchdog. Set in present-day Helsinki, The Hague and London, it’s described as an adrenaline trip into the heart of European justice policy and security regulations concerning source protection and privacy insurance. Fisher King is also behind Bordertown, which is represented worldwide by Federation Entertainment and has been sold to Sky Deutschland and CanalPlay France, while English-language series Crypted is also in its pipeline.
Deadwind: Paris-based financing and distribution boutique About Premium Content (APC) recently picked up Finnish crime drama Deadwind. The 12-part series is about a detective in her 30s who is trying to get over her husband’s death when she discovers the body of a young woman on a construction site. At Mipcom, APC launched Norwegian drama thriller Valkyrien, which is produced by Tordenfilm for NRK. It also distributes another Norwegian show, the youth-oriented Young & Promising, which was recently sold to the UK, Germany and France and has a US deal is in negotiation.
Dan Sommerdahl: This autumn it was announced that Nikolaj Scherfig (The Bridge) would be co-creator/head-writer on Dan Sommerdahl, a new series based on Danish author Anna Grue’s bestselling book series. Distributor Dynamic Television (Trapped) is pre-selling the series on behalf of Germany’s NDF and Denmark’s Nordisk Film. TV2 Denmark is attached and a German broadcaster will soon be announced. Scherfig said the project is different from classic Scandi noir: “It is a tight, clean crime series reflecting on life outside cities understanding how modernity and social development affect life in the province.” Klaus Zimmermann, Dynamic co-MD, told nordicfilmandtvnews.com: “NDF originally acquired the rights to the books and wanted to make it in the tradition of a German crime series with German actors for an international market. But then we felt it made more sense to make it as an original Danish show with a Danish writer and Danish actors. It’s simply the right way to tell the story.”
Hassel: Speaking to the Nordisk Film & TV Fond about Viaplay’s strategy for coproducing original content for the Nordic region, CEO Jonas Karlén said upcoming original Nordic scripted series on Viaplay include Swedish Dicks, Svartsjön/Black Lake, Hassel, Our Time Is Now and Occupied season two. Hassel is a Nordic noir starring Ola Rapace as the iconic detective created by author Olov Svedelid. The show is produced by Nice Drama in coproduction with Beta Film, which handles global sales, and is due to launch in late 2017.
Spring Tide: Eight brand new Nordic TV dramas have been selected for The Lübeck Festival’s Nordic Film Days. “TV drama is the big new thing. It was time for us to open up our festival to TV series, as Germans are so fond of Nordic noir,” said the festival’s long-time artistic director Linde Fröhlich. Shows to be introduced include Splitting Up Together (DK), Living with my Ex (FI), Trapped (IS), Nobel (NO), and Modus, Hashtag and Spring Tide (SE). The latter crime drama, based on the novel by Rolf and Cilla Börjlind, is about two cops who come together to solve the murder of a pregnant woman. The show is distributed internationally by Endemol Shine International.
Below the Surface: This is a new drama based on an idea by Adam Price (Borgen) and Søren Sveistrup (The Killing) – now principals in Studiocanal-backed firm SAM. The thriller series centres on an operation to rescue 15 hostages from a Copenhagen subway train. Price and Sveistrup said: “There is something both eerie and fascinating about [taking hostages] as a criminal act. The close and complex relationship between the hostage and hostage-taker immediately opens up strong character-development possibilities and can also put a number of highly topical issues about our time to the forefront, such as fear of terrorism.“ The eight-part series has received DKK14m (US$2.08m) in production support from the DFI’s Public Service Fund and will air on Kanal5/Discovery Networks.
Skam: Cult Norwegian youth series Shame (Skam) launched on NRK and was recently acquired by DR3 for Denmark. Danish newspaper Politiken called it “a youth series about high-school life that makes Norway cool for the first time.” Steffen Raastrup, director of DR3, said: “The series’ premise is that when you’re young, you should not be ashamed of who you are but stand up for yourself and deal with the fear that many feel during their formative teen years.” Skam – which is now up to three seasons in Norway and is a strong performer on social media – has also been acquired by SVT in Sweden and RUV in Iceland.
Interference: This is an eight-part English- and French-language sci-fi thriller in development by Stockholm-based Palladium Fiction. Palladium, which is minority-controlled by Sony Pictures Television (SPT), is producing the show alongside Atlantique Productions. SPT is distributing the show internationally. The Palladium team was also behind the critically acclaimed drama Jordskott, and is now working on a second season of the show. Palladium is also developing an English-language project with UK writer/producer Nicola Larder.
Established in 1990 and based in Oslo, the Nordisk Film & TV Fond’s primary purpose is to promote film and TV productions of high quality in the five Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden). It is funded by 17 partners: The Nordic Council of Ministers, five national film institutes/funds and 11 public service and private TV stations within the region. Its annual budget is approximately NOK100m.
The Japanese have a good strike rate when it comes to exporting animation and entertainment formats. But they have struggled with drama. There are a few reasons for this but, when it comes down to it, the core problem is that scripted shows that work in Japanese primetime don’t travel that well.
The country’s leading players want to do something about this because the revenues they are generating from the domestic media market aren’t as strong as they used to be. So now they are looking at formats and coproductions as ways of building up their international profile and generating a new revenue stream. They are also starting to ask themselves if there is a way of making shows that can tap into the world drama zeitgeist that has propelled Korean, Turkish, Nordic and Israeli drama around the globe.
There were a couple of examples of the way Japan is seeking to shift its mindset at the Mipcom market in Cannes this week. One was a deal that will see Nippon TV drama Mother adapted for the Turkish market by MF Yapim & MEDYAPIM. The new show will be called Anne and will air on leading broadcaster Star TV. It’s the first time a Japanese company has struck this kind of deal in Turkey.
Also this week, Japanese public broadcaster NHK screened Moribito II: Guardian of the Spirit, an ambitious live-action fantasy series based on the novels of Nahoko Uehashi – likened by some to JRR Tolkien’s epic The Lord of the Rings.
Produced in 4K and HDR, this is the second in a planned trilogy of TV series, the first of which consisted of four parts. The show has been attracting interest from channel buyers beyond Japan’s usual sphere of influence, suggesting the country may be starting to have the kind of international impact it wants.
Interestingly, NHK brought the actor Kento Hayashi to Cannes to help promote the Moribito franchise. Hayashi also starred in Netflix’s first Japanese original, Hibana, another scripted show that has captured the attention of audiences and critics around the world.
Away from Japanese activity, companies that had a good week in Cannes included ITV Studios Global Entertainment, which said its hit period drama series Victoria has now sold to more than 150 countries, including new deals with the likes of Sky Germany, VRT Belgium and Spanish pay TV platform Movistar+. It also sold comedy drama Cold Feet – renewed for a new season in 2017 – to the likes of NPO Netherlands, ITV Choice Africa, Yes in Israel, TV4 Sweden and NRK Norway.
Further evidence of the appeal of lavish period pieces came with the pre-sales buzz around Zodiak Rights’ Versailles, which is going into its second season. At Mipcom, the show was picked up by a range of broadcasters and platforms including BBC2 (UK), Amazon Prime (UK), C More (Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland), DirecTV (Latin America) and Movistar+.
Moving beyond period pieces, other shows that cut through the promotional clutter included Sony Pictures Television (SPT)’s time-travel drama Timeless, which sold to the UK’s Channel 4 to air on its youth-skewing E4 network. The show was also picked up by the likes of OSN in the Middle East, Fox in Italy, AXN in Japan, Viacom 18’s Colors Infinity in India and Sohu in China.
SPT also sold new sitcom Kevin Can Wait to Channel 4 in the UK, though perhaps the most interesting Sony-related story at Mipcom was the news that its international television network group AXN has joined forces with Pinewood Television to a develop a slate of six TV drama projects.
The series will be financed in partnership between Sony Pictures Television Networks and Pinewood Television. The plan is for them to air on AXN channels in Latin America, Asia, Africa and Europe, with a programming emphasis on high-impact action, crime and mystery. The deal was brokered by Marie Jacobson, executive VP of programming and production at SPTN, and Peter Gerwe, a director for Pinewood Television.
Jacobson said: “As we look for alternative paths to expand original series development, Pinewood TV make for the ideal partners. We are look forward to developing projects with them that play both in the UK and on our channels around the world.”
Other high-profile dramas to attract buyer attention at the market this week included StudioCanal’s Swedish-French eight-hour drama Midnight Sun, picked up by ZDF in Germany, SBS in Australia, HOT in Israel and DR in Denmark.
Distributor FremantleMedia International licensed its big-budget series The Young Pope to Kadokawa Corporation in Japan, while Twentieth Century Fox Television Distribution licensed The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story to French pay TV operator Canal+.
Another show that enjoyed some success this week was DRG-distributed The Level, a six-part thriller that was picked up by ABC Australia, UTV in Ireland, TVNZ in New Zealand and DBS Satellite Services in Israel, among others. Produced by Kate Norrish and Polly Leys, joint MDs of Hillbilly Films, the show follows a reputable cop with a secret that is about to unravel. The show has previously been picked up by Acorn Media Enterprises for the US market.
Reiterating the growing interest in non-English drama, Global Screen enjoyed some success with Rivals Forever – The Sneaker Battle, which tells the true story of how brothers Adi and Rudi Dassler set up Adidas and Puma. France Télévisions acquired free TV rights and will air the series in early 2017 on France 3, while Just Entertainment in the Netherlands has landed video, pay TV and VoD rights. Other buyers included DR (Denmark), FTV Prima (Czech Republic), LRT (Lithuania) and HBO Europe (for Eastern Europe).
Turkish drama successes included Mistco’s sale of TRT period drama Resurrection to Kazakhstan Channel 31. Eccho Rights also sold four Turkish dramas to Chilean broadcaster Mega. The four shows were all produced by Ay Yapim and include the recent hit series Insider. This continues a good run of success for Turkish content in the Latin American region.
While Mipcom is fundamentally a sales market, its conference programme is also a useful way of tuning into international trends and opportunities in drama. There was an interesting keynote with showrunner Adi Hasak, who has managed to get two shows away with US networks (Shades of Blue, Eyewitness) in the last three years despite having no real track record with the US channel business. He believes the current voracious demand for ideas has made this possible: “This is a small business, where everyone knows everyone. If you create material that speaks to buyers, they will respond.”
Participant Media CEO David Linde also talked about the way his company is starting to extend its influence beyond film into TV and social media. Known for movies like An Inconvenient Truth, Food Inc, Snitch and Spotlight, the firm’s expansion into TV will see a new series about journalists breaking stories, developed by the team behind Oscar winner Spotlight.
Mipcom, which takes place in Cannes between October 17 and 20, is not just a great platform for international drama – it’s also a useful showcase for writers from around the world.
At a time when the key players in the scripted TV business are increasingly willing to employ writers from beyond their home territory, it’s worth exploring the people behind the market’s headline dramas.
French distributor Wild Bunch TV, for example, will be in Cannes with three dramas including Israeli production Mama’s Angel. A 10-episode psychological drama that explores the dark underbelly of life in a wealthy Tel Aviv suburb after a child is murdered, it was screened in competition at Series Mania 2016 and was created by rising star Keren Weissman.
Called Malach Shel Ima in Hebrew, the show was produced by Black Sheep Productions and aired on Yes TV. Weissman’s first TV drama series, it has scored a decent 8.2 rating on IMDb. Speaking at Series Mania, Weissman said the show took four years to write and places a strong emphasis on emotive themes such as motherhood.
Also on the Wild Bunch slate a road trip-cum-love story Tytgat Chocolate, about a man and his mentally challenged co-workers at a chocolate factory. The seven-part Flemish series was written and directed by Marc Bryssinck and Filip Lenaerts and produced by deMENSEN for VRT. Of the two writers, Lenaerts has the longer track record in TV, having created 2011 documentary The Colony (about life in an isolated prison). Interestingly, Bryssinck is artistic director at Theatre Stap, a professional theatre company that works with people who have mental disabilities. Clearly this experience will have helped inform the VRT show.
Red Arrow International’s slate features a diverse range of drama titles including Farang, a Nordic drama made by Warner Bros for C More and TV4 in Sweden. This one tells the story of a former criminal eking out a shabby existence in Thailand having testified against some old friends in his home country, Sweden. An eight-part series starring Ola Rapace, this one is written by Malin Lagerlof, Veronica Zacco, Anders Sparring and Niklas Rockstrom.
Lagerlof is a well-established writer whose recent credits include SVT miniseries Bibliotekstjuven and Wallander – Saknaden, a 2013 production from Yellow Bird. Prior to her success in TV, she made a name for herself in theatre and film production. Zacco is a more recent addition to the industry but has several episodes of Thicker than Water under her belt. Rockstrom, who also worked on Thicker than Water, is now involved with a new SVT project called Before We Die. Sparring’s most recent major credit, meanwhile, was the kids animation series Rita & Krokodille.
Red Arrow is also at the market with The Romeo Section: Assassins, a Vancouver-set espionage thriller that aired on CBC. The blurb says: “To his university, Professor Wolfgang McGee is a gifted academic. To his country, he is the spymaster behind the Romeo Section, a secret ring of intelligence operatives that infiltrate some of the world’s deadliest criminal networks.”
This one is written by a trio that includes Jesse McKeown, Chris Haddock and Stephen E. Miller. McKeown is a well-established writer whose recent credits include 19-2, Rogue, Republic of Doyle and Da Vinci’s City Hall. Larger-than-life figure Haddock was the creator and showrunner of the latter show and also showruns the new title being marketed by Red Arrow. In fact, he has previously been profiled by DQ – click here to check it out. Interestingly, Miller is better known as an actor (with a long string of credits). This is his first outing as a writer, except for a single episode of Da Vinci’s Inquest, a precursor to Da Vinci’s City Hall that was also created and written by Haddock.
StudioCanal’s big push at the market is Midnight Sun, a Canal+/SVT coproduction. Created by Måns Mårlind and Bjorn Stein, StudioCanal calls it “a high-concept thriller set in a small mining community in remote northern Sweden where a series of brutal murders conceal a secret conspiracy.” Due to air later this year, the series received the Audience Award at SeriesMania in April.
Mårlind and Stein, of course, are best known for crime series Bron, which has aired in 160 countries and has been remade in the US as The Bridge and the UK as The Tunnel. They started working together at Stockholm-based production company Camp David where they directed commercials for major brands including Nike, UNICEF, Toyota, Reebok, Scandinavian Airlines, and IKEA. After this they began alternating between commercials and feature films, helming Underworld: Awakening, starring Kate Beckinsale. In more recent times their focus has been on high-end TV drama.
Sticking with the Scandinavians, StudioCanal will also present Below the Surface, a crime thriller for Denmark’s Kanal 5 from SAM Productions. In this story, 15 people on a subway train beneath Copenhagen are taken hostage by three armed men. A terror taskforce is dispatched to rescue them and a reporter acts as go-between with the police as the captors bait the press with information about each hostage’s past.
Kasper Barfoed is creator, head writer and concept director of the show. Until now, Barfoed had been best known as a director, having previously been a child actor. His previous directorial credits include Dicte and Those Who Kill. His only previous writing credit is 2015 movie Sommeren ’92, set against the Danish football team’s successful campaign in the 1992 European Championships.
From the UK, StudioCanal has Crazyhead, a new comedy-horror series from Bafta winner Howard Overman (Misfits). The six-part series is produced by Urban Myth Films for Channel 4 in association with Netflix. It follows “Amy and Raquel as they navigate their way through the choppy waters of their early 20s while kicking the ass of some seriously gnarly demons.”
RAI Com, the sales arm of Italian pubcaster RAI, is also heading to Cannes with a strong slate of dramas. One key title is crime series Non Uccidere (Close Murders), which is entering its second season. The story focuses on a female crime fighter, Valeria Ferro of the Turin Homicide Squad, and her battle against domestic and community-based violence. It was directed by Giuseppe Gagliardi and created by Claudio Corbucci, whose previous TV series credits include La Squadra. For the last few years, he has been more focused on movies and TV movies.
Dori Media Group, meanwhile, has high hopes for crime drama El Marginal, a 2016 Grand Prix winner at Séries Mania. El Marginal is a coproduction from Underground Producciones and TV Publica Argentina and was created by Sebastian Ortega.
It tells the story of Miguel Dimarco, “an ex-cop who enters prison under a false identity as a convict. His mission is to infiltrate a gang of prisoners who have kidnapped the daughter of a prominent judge. Miguel must discover the whereabouts of the girl and help set her free. He meets the objective but someone betrays him, leaving him behind bars with no witnesses who know his true identity.”
Ortega is a well-established writer/producer on the Argentinian scene and has been closely associated with commercial channel Telefe since 2008 (though this title is for TPA, not Telefe). Big hits during his career have included Lalola, Los Exitosos Pells and Graduates. Ortega’s shows generally score well with international buyers, so El Marginal is also likely to attract a lot of attention.
Top-tier television writers are in short supply, so how are producers finding new voices for the small screen? DQ investigates.
If there’s a downside to the current boom in television drama, it might be the often-heard complaint from producers that there is a shortage of writers.
And while it might seem like a bizarre claim – with writing TV shows surely ranking as one of the most coveted jobs in the world – what Europe’s producers really mean is there is a shortage of writers who are trusted to deliver workable scripts for big-budget drama productions.
Given the eye-watering cost of making a TV drama, and the influence a writer can have on other areas such as casting, direction and financing, the emphasis on a chosen few is understandable, says Belinda Campbell, joint MD of UK-based prodco Red Planet Pictures.
“But it does mean brilliant A-list writers get very booked up,” she adds. “We’re fortunate to have good relationships with the likes of Sarah Phelps [Dickensian, And Then There Were None], as well as a CEO with a strong track record [Tony Jordan], but we have waited a long time for writers we wanted for certain projects.”
There is a similar assessment from Kate Harwood, MD of FremantleMedia-owned drama label Euston Films: “Broadcasters don’t tell producers which writers to work with. But when they are constantly being pitched the very best projects, they are bound to select the outstanding work they get from geniuses like Sally Wainwright [Happy Valley]. As a result, there is a lot of competition among producers to secure the services of a handful of talented and experienced screenwriters – though that isn’t always a question of money. If you have the rights to an interesting piece of IP, that can help.”
The challenge is to make sure producers don’t become reliant on a small group of elite writers and prevent new talent coming through, which leads to a second issue – how to get into the TV industry in the first place. Compared with most professions, there is still an air of mystery about how young writers can get their foot in the door, with the industry often accused of failing women, BAME, LGBT and working-class writers.
This lack of a clear pathway, coupled with the bottleneck at the top end, puts TV at risk of over-reliance on similar-sounding voices.
The US doesn’t seem to face the same blockages as Europe. In part, this is because there is such a large demand for TV drama writers from a broad array of networks that commissioners can’t afford to be so prescriptive. But there is also a better talent-advancement model in the shape of writers rooms, says Frank Spotnitz (The Man in the High Castle), a sought-after showrunner who came up through the US system, most notably on Fox’s The X-Files, and now plies his trade in Europe.
“A young writer in the US might start in film school, then write a spec script of a show they are interested in. If the producer of that show likes it, they may be invited to join the writers room as a junior member,” he explains. “Alternatively, some people join a writers room as an assistant and, if they are diligent, may be introduced as a writer after a year or so. On the whole, it feels like a merit-based system.”
From here, says Spotnitz, they will take on more responsibility until they are deemed ready to run their own show. “It took me three years from joining The X-Files until I was running the show – which is pretty swift. Regardless of the speed, however, writers aren’t just learning how to write in a writers room, they are learning everything they need to know about the overall production process to deliver a shooting script.”
This system of on-the-job training has spawned scores of great showrunners – such as Fargo’s Noah Hawley (who cut his teeth on Bones), Sons of Anarchy’s Kurt Sutter (The Shield), Power’s Courtney Kemp Agboh (The Good Wife) and UnREAL’s Marti Noxon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer). But the writers room model is rare in Europe, says Spotnitz, whose current slate includes Ransom, Medici: Masters of Florence and The Indian Detective. “I use writers rooms for shows that come through my company (Big Light Productions). But it’s still not very common here.”
The main reason for this seems to be production economics. In the US, drama commissions are generally 10 episodes and upwards – with a hardwired expectation/ambition that they will be renewed. By comparison, the majority of dramas in the UK still get produced at eight episodes or under – a number that makes it harder to justify running a US-style team of writers.
So how do writers build their careers in the UK, one of the most prolific TV drama markets outside the US? Caroline Hollick, creative director at Red Production Company, says: “A lot of writers in the UK progress through the soaps or returning drama series. We were fortunate to produce Scott & Bailey for a number of years and that was a great way to nurture talent. After Sally Wainwright [who started her career on soaps like Coronation Street] set the series up, we brought in writers like Amelia Bullmore and Lee Warburton.”
Competitions – although a bit of a lottery – provide another gateway into the business. Lionsgate UK has teamed up with Idris Elba’s Green Door Pictures for the Write To Green Light competition, designed to discover new voices in returnable TV drama.
Also up and running for the last few years has been the Red Planet Writing Competition. “We’ve certainly seen the benefit,” says Red Planet’s Campbell. “It introduced us to Robert Thorogood and gave us one of our most successful productions, Death in Paradise. As an aside, it also provided a platform for Daisy Coulam, a writer who came to us after working on soaps like Casualty and EastEnders. Daisy has now gone on to be the creator and lead writer on Grantchester.”
Sally Woodward Gentle, founder of Sid Gentle Films, says theatre is an increasingly important testing ground for UK TV writers. “TV has got so expensive that there aren’t many slots to try out new voices. But there are some good young writers in theatre who have grown up understanding the grammar of TV. And with the recent changes in TV drama, it is an exciting option for them.”
Examples include Abi Morgan, who went from plays to Peak Practice to acclaimed productions like The Hour and River. Mike Bartlett and David Farr are playwrights who have just delivered two massive hits for the BBC in Doctor Foster and The Night Manager respectively.
Euston Films’ Harwood says authors can also offer a fresh voice for TV: “The transition doesn’t always work, but then there are great examples like Deborah Moggach and Neil Cross, who we are now working with on Hard Sun.” Cross was a novelist before coming on board Spooks and then creating detective series Luther.
Other ways to catch broadcasters’ attention include teaming established authors with proven screenwriters (Harlan Coben and Danny Brocklehurst on Sky1’s The Five) and trying to ride industry trends. Buccaneer Media did this when it hired Nordic Noir hotshot Hans Rosenfeldt (The Bridge) to write ITV’s Marcella.
It’s also noticeable that more movie writers are being enticed into TV – a classic example being John Logan (Gladiator, The Aviator, Skyfall), who wrote Penny Dreadful for Sky Atlantic and Showtime.
“We have Neal Purvis and Rob Wade [Spectre, Skyfall] writing our adaptation of Len Deighton’s SS-GB for the BBC,” says Woodward Gentle. “Increasingly, film writers are attracted to writing TV series, which is a good development for producers.”
The recent success of German content in the international market with shows such as Deutschland 83 and the limited choice of local writers with international appeal has led Nico Hofmann, co-CEO of FremantleMedia-owned UFA Fiction, in search of foreign writers.
“For example, we worked with British writer Paula Milne on The Same Sky and, through our FremantleMedia connections, were introduced to Australian writer Rachael Turk. Rachael is now developing an exciting mystery series with us, set in the beautiful area around Lake Constance in south Germany. We are also working together with Oscar winner Dror Moreh [The Gatekeepers] on an adaptation of Frank Schätzing’s bestselling thriller Breaking News.”
Hofmann is also looking beyond the TV industry for fresh voices: “A good example would be Philipp Jessen, with whom we are working on Giftschrank [Poison Cabinet], a drama series about the world of tabloid journalism. Philipp came to us from the world of journalism and has presented us with an authentic and exciting series concept.”
French firm Atlantique Productions’ co-MD Olivier Bibas takes a similar line with regard to France: “Atlantique is focused on TV series that can work in primetime for international TV networks, and there is a shortage of French screenwriters who can deliver those. So we are also looking at the international market for writers.”
Bibas, however, is keen not to get caught up in the bidding wars for high-profile UK or US writers: “We are coproducing a spaghetti western called Django with [Italian prodco] Cattleya in Italian. In that case we have selected three Italian writers for the job because we believe they have the right voice for the project. And in the long run it makes sense for us to invest in new talent.”
Atlantique has also partnered with Sweden’s Nice Productions on Midnight Sun, a thriller set in Sweden’s Arctic region. “This series is written by Måns Mårlind and directed by Björn Stein, two Swedish talents involved in the creation and production of The Bridge,” says Bibas. “In France it is airing on Canal+ [as Jour Polaire].”
Of course, the popularity of Swedish writers has implications for the domestic market. “Sweden is not a big country,” says Nice Productions head of international coproductions Stefan Baron, “so there isn’t a large pool of writers for productions.”
Baron says the squeeze on Swedish writers is, ironically, being made worse by the increased investment coming into Swedish drama. “There is more money for drama, which is good. But that means a lot more projects in development. So if I try to hire a writer for a project, he may hesitate because he has his own project in development and is waiting for an answer. We could all do with quicker decisions to help free up writers.”
Rola Bauer, CEO of StudioCanal-owned Tandem Productions, echoes that sentiment, while adding that Europe suffers from a writer brain-drain: “A lot of writers, when they reach a certain level of expertise, are tempted to go to LA – which offers a different kind of challenge and potentially high levels of rewards.”
Bauer has also brought in writers with real-world experience, such as ex-cop Ed Bernero who was the showrunner on crime series Crossing Lines.
There are examples like this across the industry. In the UK, Jed Mercurio (pictured top) was a doctor before coming to prominence with medical dramas like Critical. In Israel, war journalist Avi Issacharoff and former soldier Lior Raz created Fauda.
Keshet International (KI) head of global coproductions Atar Dekel says Israel has a number of “talented and prolific writers” who ply their trade across a number of related areas. “It’s a small market, so it’s not uncommon for writers to make money in a number of ways. They’re very entrepreneurial. So you have people who are TV writers, playwrights and journalists.”
A variation on this is the kind of formatted drama KI is so skilled at. “With the UK adaptation of The A Word for the BBC, we needed someone who was interested in the subject matter (child autism) but also knew the local culture,” says Dekel. “So we were fortunate that we secured Peter Bowker.”
Bowker spent 12 years working in a hospital before taking a creative writing course and joining medical soap Casualty. It then took him two decades to secure his place on the UK writer A-list – which underlines two points. First, most writers who make it to the top have learned their trade the hard way; and second, their value to producers lies in the fact that they will almost certainly deliver a decent end product.
With that in mind, the negative connotations of writer blockages in Europe need to be set against the fact the TV drama system is booming in terms of ratings and quality. At the same time, however, the strength of the business shouldn’t be used as an excuse to ignore the issue of diversity.
Most producers agree that, in partnership with broadcasters, they need to take more risks if they are to truly reflect their audience. Red’s Hollick would also like to see “more development money going into this area, not just schemes that go nowhere,” adding: “Channel 4, Lime Pictures and our company did some good work with Northumberland University and the Northern Writers’ Awards, attempting to identify raw and diverse talent in the north of England. We really need to get out into communities to find exciting new talent.”