French crime procedural Balthazar introduces a forensic pathologist with an unusual talent. DQ hears more about the six-part drama from producer Stephane Marsil and co-writer Clothilde Jamin.
With audiences still keen to play detective and broadcasters eager for original procedurals that don’t require viewers to follow a single story over multiple episodes, French crime drama Balthazar promises a fresh take on a well-worn genre.
Described as charming, handsome and intelligent, forensic pathologist Raphaël Balthazar is both fascinating and furious in his desire to live life to the full, often in defiance of norms and conventions. This proves to be a major challenge for police commander Hélène Bach, a mother and the newest member of the Criminal Brigade who partners with Balthazar to solve some of the most complex murders they have ever faced.
Tomer Sisley (Eyewitness) and Hélène de Fougerolles (Le secret d’Elise) lead the cast as Balthazar and Bach respectively, in a series directed by Frédéric Berthe, Vincent Jamain and Jeremy Minui and written by Clothilde Jamin and Clélia Constantine. The six-part drama, due to air by the end of this year, is produced by Beaubourg Stories for France’s TF1 and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment (ITVSGE).
Beaubourg Stories sets itself apart from other production companies in France by employing full-time writers who also produce the series they have created, using many characteristics of the US showrunning model. The model was inspired by French cinema’s auteur system, with Beaubourg MD and Balthazar producer Stephane Marsil keen to utilise the creative benefits that come with writers producing their own work. Balthazar is the latest series to emerge from this model, following previous series Falco and Profilage.
“I’m not sure it’s for everyone but, for me, it’s the best way to work,” says co-writer Jamin. “You can follow every discussion and be part of the casting. That’s how you write well when you’re part of the show from the beginning. I love to work with Stephane. It’s a very good idea he had.”
Jamin and Constantine were keen to collaborate on a series about people who work daily with something most people would rather forget or ignore – death – and how that affects them. “Death is the only thing we don’t control,” says Jamin. “We really wanted to go deeper and deeper on this character. He’s a charming and mysterious coroner, working with death every day. He loves the job more than his wife. He’s a sexy, funny man and he teams up with a cop, so every episode they have a case they have to solve together. It’s all about these two very different people trying to work together.”
Though they initially clash over their opposing lifestyles – one enjoying life too much and the other having forgotten how to live – Jamin says the two main characters actually have a lot in common. Their contrasting worlds are explored each week as they take on a new case that puts them in challenging situations.
The co-writers spent a lot of time talking over the characters and the plotlines, and shared the desire for Sisley to play the lead role as Balthazar took shape on the page. “Now seeing him play for us is great. We were very excited,” Jamin says.
Marsil continues: “Tomer liked the project, the character, everything. He read the scripts of the first two episodes and directly said he wanted to do it. It was very quick. He was the first choice. It was amazing.”
But Balthazar isn’t just any coroner. What sets him apart from other investigators is his ability to talk to the dead. While examining a body laid out in front of him on the mortuary table, he is able to conjure the image of that person beside him, talking through the case with the deceased in an effort to help him understand what has happened and who might have been behind it.
It’s a device that is used to both humanise the deceased characters, who are presented as ‘normal’ rather than in a ghostly or blood-stained fashion, and reveal more about Balthazar himself. Little is initially revealed about the lead character, except that he lives alone after the death of his wife and shares little about his life. But his conversations with the dead slowly reveal more about his own life and the way his mind works to solve cases.
“They are not ghosts. He imagines that people on his table talk to him,” Jamin says. “We wanted to find out how to humanise the people he works on. So he speaks to his dead wife; you see her on the table or at the window. We see them somewhere in the room. But the body is also still on the table.”
Beubourg operates studios on the outskirts of Paris, near Orly, where 50% of its series are filmed. Remaining scenes are filmed in and around the French capital. In this regard, Balthazar follows the same production process as other dramas from the company.
On this show in particular, the studio was used to film Balthazar’s apartment and the hospital. The big question, however, was whether to build the mortuary where he works. They could not use the one in Paris, so they either had to construct their own set or find another location out of town. Eventually, Marsil took the decision to build it. “It was very expensive but, because we have studios, we can do that. TF1 was very happy,” he adds.
Marsil and Jamin are now collaborating on eight new episodes for season two, with shooting expected to begin in February next year. And while TF1 is clearly pleased with the series, international audiences also stand to be “pleasantly surprised” by this crime procedural, says Julie Meldal-Johnsen, exec VP of global content at ITVSGE. “They will be seduced by the charm and mischievousness of Raphaël, who really makes the series unique.”
Meldal-Johnsen also believes the series “reinvigorates” the procedural genre with a modern touch that aims to appeal to a broad audience. “The writers have found a very clever way to share Balthazar’s thoughts with viewers [via his discussions with the dead],” she notes. “The technique used is wonderfully executed and works amazingly on screen. It opens the door to his concerns, his desires and his weaknesses, and helps the viewers understand him and his past better.”
Crime stories continue to appeal to viewers the world over, containing some or all of the elements traditionally associated with the genre: whodunnit mysteries, good versus evil, jeopardy, suspense, high stakes and the satisfaction of seeing justice done or the guilty pleasure of someone getting away with it.
As a result, “finding new and engaging ways of telling crime stories is getting harder, but it is very rewarding dramatically and commercially too,” Meldal-Johsen says. “Audiences love getting a chance to dive into the the different worlds these shows create, which can vary hugely from garden crime to organised crime, as well as in tone from Nordic noir to lighter comedy.
“As a distributor, finding the right story or concept takes forging relationships with producers who understand the craft of storytelling required to keep it fresh,” she adds. “Episodic procedurals are especially tough to crack and need very talented writers and producers. We are lucky enough to work with Stephane and his team at Beaubourg, who have proven to be adept at contemporary crime – and Balthazar is a fine example of their skill.”
Chris Noth, Leven Rambin and Danny Pino explain why US crime procedural Gone stands out from the crowd – and recall filming a tough fight sequence between two of the leading trio.
Gone tells the fictional story of Kit ‘Kick’ Lannigan, the survivor of a famous child abduction case, who is recruited by Frank Booth, the FBI agent who rescued her, to join a special task force dedicated to solving abductions and missing persons cases. Commissioned by Germany’s RTL and TF1 in France, it is produced by NBCUniversal International Studios and distributed by NBCUniversal International Distribution. It has also been acquired by US cable channel WGN America.
Chris Noth, who plays Booth: Every law enforcement show has its own unique and distinct voice and this one is a bit more disturbing. To be an FBI agent in this unique way takes a certain mindset and it also articulates who Frank is. At the beginning of the series we haven’t gotten into each character’s total history yet but there’s a side of Frank that drives him to this kind of work. As we evolve, I hope we’ll get more into that. I really liked the way all the characters’ pasts are interlaced so that each episode articulates that.
Danny Pino (former Army intelligence officer John Bishop): Gone is really about character. When we’re talking about differentiating procedural cop dramas, Law & Order does a very good job of thrusting the case to the forefront. But what attracted me to Gone was the backstory, certainly with Bishop. That onion is peeled very slowly, and you find it’s then reflected in the case. We’re able to bring some of that baggage so the case isn’t stale or dry. It’s not just something we’re going through rudimentarily to fulfil our occupation. This is something very personal to the characters – certainly it is for Kick from the very beginning. When I read the pilot, I knew Bishop was going to reflect that rawness effectively and I thought this was something I was interested in exploring.
Leven Rambin (Lannigan): I saw this as a 1,000% hardcore black drama because I went crazy in my actor mind. I worked with a real-life survivor – she’s just normal, you wouldn’t know that she’s been tortured and gagged and the things that were done to her. Once I met her, you need to add in that she’s just a normal girl living life. And Kick has a good personality as well. Moments of lightness are really important. Those progress more as the show goes on, which I’m really happy about, because at the start I was like, ‘Let’s make it really dark all the time,’ but that’s not appealing to anyone.
Bishop and Kick are introduced in episode one when he visits her gym looking for self-defence lessons, leading to a fight sequence between the pair that ends when Frank enters and reveals Bishop’s real intention was to test Kick’s skills before he and Frank recruit her to their new task force.
Pino: We rehearsed that a couple of weeks before we actually started shooting. We started rehearsing in LA and the trainers were teaching us how to fight for the camera. Then we showed up two weeks before production in Pittsburgh. We were doing pure choreography, which Leven picked up in a heartbeat. She was ready to fight. Then I pretended I was ready, but I really wasn’t.
We shot each episode in seven days, which is one day fewer than most procedural cop drama episodes take. And when you add action to it, it’s very challenging so we had a very truncated time to shoot in. The director, John Terlesky, said, ‘Now we need to get this [fight scene] in about two hours,’ and he was looking at his watch. I said, ‘Let’s break it up,’ but he said, ‘No, let’s just run it.’ And we ran the entire fight the first time we filmed it. I think Leven punched me three times, and I managed to graze her as well. We ended up running the entire fight five or six times and our stunt doubles just stood there. They did a throw but, at the end of the day, the editors came up to us and said they only used 2% from the stunt doubles, so most of that fight is just us swinging at each other and kicking at each other. That was really fun. And that’s different for a procedural cop drama to have that much action.
French director Jean-Jacques Annaud takes the reins and actor Patrick Dempsey returns to the small screen in The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, a 10-part murder-mystery series from Epix, MGM and TF1. DQ visits the set.
But for the sign that reads ‘Maine State Police Station’ and the fact the road has been closed off by police, there’s little to suggest anything is amiss on a quiet street in Quebec’s Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu.
Situated about 40 kilometres south-east of Montreal and not far from the border with Vermont, the scene is set for a police press conference. Outside an inconspicuous office building, imitation news cameras and news vans blend in with actual film equipment and transport vans, blurring the lines between the stage and the outside world. To most passers-by, it probably looks like an actual press conference is taking place.
It’s late November 2017 and the final stretch of principal photography on The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, an ambitious 10-part miniseries being made by MGM Television, Barbary Films and Eagle Pictures, is under way. Based on the acclaimed second novel by Swiss author Joël Dicker, the adaptation is directed by French filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud and stars Patrick Dempsey (Grey’s Anatomy), Ben Schnetzer (Snowden), Damon Wayans Jr (Singularity) and Virginia Madsen (Sideways).
The show is set to open France’s inaugural Canneseries TV festival, screening out of competition on April 7, before airing on Epix in the US and TF1 in France. MGM will be selling rights for other territories at MipTV, shortly after the Canneseries premiere.
The murder mystery sees Schnetzer playing Marcus Goldman, a young novelist seeking inspiration for his next book. As he arrives in New Hampshire to stay with his college professor, the titular Harry Quebert (Dempsey), the body of a teenager who disappeared more than three decades ago is discovered, implicating Quebert.
The show marks Annaud’s first foray into directing for TV. Having won an Oscar with his 1976 debut La Victoire en Chantant, he’s best known for helming a string of Hollywood features including 1986’s The Name of the Rose, 1997’s Seven Years in Tibet and 2001’s Enemy at the Gates.
Nevertheless, he has spent recent years contemplating a move to the small screen. “I saw that television was taking the lead in terms of storytelling and more mature material,” he says during a break on set. Having read Dicker’s novel two years ago, Annaud was initially offered it as a film, “but as I was turning the pages, there were so many interesting characters and so many twists in the story that I said, ‘This is the perfect moment for me to say yes to television, for a 10-episode miniseries.’
“There were also other factors: I’ve been used to rather large movies with long setups, and the idea of moving quicker is something that appeals to me.”
Annaud’s idea of “quicker” appears to be an understatement. On set, crew remark that most day’s shoots are remarkably tight and rarely go into the night. “We’re moving fast, therefore we’re moving with energy, keeping in mind that we have to tell the grand story and not worry so much about the little details, reflections in mirrors, things like that,” the director explains. “And I must say I enjoy the process immensely.
“I was not too sure if I was going to direct all 10 episodes, but MGM insisted. And, as a matter of fact, I like being in control. I don’t know how several directors could have adjusted to know the intimacy of each character, the complexity.”
Annaud’s approach to the series has been to shoot it “like a 10-hour movie in segments.” As such, the team are block-shooting on location, rather than filming episodically. “It’s good for the budget, it’s good for the energy and it’s very efficient,” he notes.
In shooting at speed, he is reverting to a technique that he developed nearly four decades ago, while filming Paleolithic period drama Quest for Fire, which won an Oscar for best make-up. While making the 1981 film, “I could not do many shots because the make-up would be ruined, so I was shooting three cameras all the time,” he explains. “But it was three cameras with very different angles, which allows great coverage and also puts the actors in a situation where they know that if it’s good, then take one, without rehearsal, is going to be the take.
“If camera A is not good, it’s usually good on camera B or C. And that gives them great energy on the set, it’s terrific,” he adds. “[Seven Samurai director Akira] Kurosawa used to do that.”
By 10.00, the crew are keen to proceed with the day’s filming, but the weather is proving problematic. It’s supposed to be autumn in New England, so they use leaf blowers and shovels to clear snow from the set. But it is falling as fast as they can remove it. For now, they will have to wait.
In the first of two scenes, Schnetzer arrives at the police station and exits a taxi, walking briskly inside while talking on his phone. The second sees him and Wayans Jr departing the station together, walking and talking as they head to the latter’s police cruiser.
“I kind of play the audience’s role within the series, so my character sees the twists to the story at the same time the audience sees them,” Schnetzer explains. “Because we’ve shot the series as a movie, it hasn’t been shot episodically, it’s almost like shooting a 500-page film. I’ve had to do a lot more work chronologically, figuring out where in the story we are now – that’s definitely been an undertaking.”
Nevertheless, the actor notes that the line between film and TV “has become much more blurred” over the past five years, “particularly with a limited series or a 10-episode miniseries, which is a great medium to adapt a novel because you don’t have to be as ruthless in what you cut.”
With Quebec doubling for New England, today’s shoot takes place in the series’ near-present-day timeline of 2008. More challenging, however, have been Harry Quebert’s 1975 flashbacks, which have required a completely different look, comprising set design, VFX and hair and make-up.
Among those adopting a period look for the series is Tessa Mossey, an emerging actor originally from Canada’s Prince Edward Island. The teenager plays young prom queen and love interest-of-sorts Jenny Quinn in the show’s flashbacks, with Victoria Clark as the present-day version of the character.
“There’s a whole other level of preparation when it comes to entering a different time period,” Mossey offers between takes. “I find, especially with a character like Jenny, that the people who were popular at that time, the music that was popular, all of that plays a such big part of her identity.
“She wants her hair to look like Farrah Fawcett’s, she wants her eyelashes to look like Twiggy’s… she has all of these people she really looks up to and whom influence her identity, which she thinks is so important to how people view her. So the time period is very influential in creating that aesthetic.”
In addition, the series employs considerable hair and make-up to age its characters. In the case of lead actor Dempsey, who is returning to television following 11 seasons on Grey’s Anatomy, this has involved making him look both older and younger for the show’s 30-year time leaps.
“With ageing him down, what we can do is kind of limited,” explains series make-up designer Émilie Gauthier. “It’s pretty much beauty make-up and we’re going to do a little bit of VFX in post.”
Adding extra years to Dempsey has been considerably more work, however. “We understand that he’s about 35 in 1975, so he now has to be about 68,” Gauthier says. That entails about three-and-a-half hours’ worth of make-up each day. “He has one big neck piece, three other pieces on the jaw and near the nose, and then we work by hand around the eyes, with a process we call stippling.”
Beyond the hair and make-up, director of photography Jean-Marie Dreujou – a frequent collaborator with Annaud – has been the one charged with creating instantly identifiable, unique visuals for the series’ time periods. “The main requirement from Jean-Jacques was to set up, visually, the two time periods straight away,” says Dreujou.
“It was most important that the viewer could see immediately what period it was, because the series is complicated as far as the flashbacks – and the flashbacks within the flashbacks – are concerned. It’s essential to know exactly where you are as soon as you see the picture, between 1975 and the other years in the film.”
Both the DoP and the director express their love for shooting in Canada, which they have now done on multiple occasions, and cite the talent and professionalism of Canuck crews in addition to the country’s generous system of tax credits.
After lunch, the temperature on set drops from -4°C (25°F) to -8°C. Schnetzer and Wayans Jr, dressed in light, autumnal jackets, thrust their hands in their pockets between takes, hopping from foot to foot in a bid to stay warm.
At least the brisk pace of filming offers some respite from the biting cold. Annaud “really knows what he wants and he gets what he wants; you just have to be prepared to do one or two takes,” remarks Wayans Jr, who plays the show’s lead investigator, Sgt Gahalowood.
“You’re always on your toes because he’s gonna move quick, he’s moving on,” he adds. “I’ve honestly never been on anything that goes this fast, but it’s a fun exercise, I like it. You don’t really have the chance to ramp up into a scene; you have to make sure that you’re there already, as much as possible.”
Annaud grins in agreement. “They feel the energy, they feel the story,” the director says, preparing for another scene. “Everybody knows they have to be good first take; the focus pullers, the actors… they know that if they don’t know their lines, they’ll look stupid, so it’s internal competition for everyone.”
Our conversation is interrupted as an out-of-breath crewman runs up to inform that it’s time to shoot. “I’m sorry,” the runner interjects, “but before it snows again, we need to get this right now.”
And with that, Annaud’s headphones slip over his ears, cameras slide into position and the director is back behind a monitor for another rapid take.
Executive producer Frank Spotnitz discusses the real-life origins of hostage thriller Ransom – commissioned by CBS in the US, Canada’s Global, German broadcaster RTL and French network TF1 – while star Luke Roberts describes the life-and-death stakes in play for his character, negotiator Eric Roberts.
Ransom is produced by Entertainment One (eOne), Sienna Films and Wildcat Productions, and distributed by eOne.
TF1’s head of French drama Marie Guillaumond tells DQ how the drama boom is building in France and how she hopes to work with streaming giants Netflix and Amazon.
As part of C21 Media’s International Drama Summit, currently underway in London, Drama Quarterly asked some of the biggest names in the television drama industry about their thoughts on the business.
Here, Marie Guillaumond (above), head of French drama at French broadcaster TF1, talks about working with bestselling author Harlan Coben and building budgets to pay for the ambitious drama series now demanded by audiences.
What was your biggest hit of 2016 and why?
French series are becoming increasingly successful on TF1, hitting records for the fourth year in a row in 2015/16. I ‘d like two highlight two programmes that are particularly in line with our editorial strategy. Une Chance de Trop (No Second Chance) has been an extraordinary journey with Harlan Coben. No Second Chance marks the first French TV adaptation of a book by the bestselling writer and it was also the author’s first time as a showrunner. This breathtaking thriller was a massive success with 8.7 million viewers (35% market share and 38% of women) – our biggest hit in 2015. The series was a hit outside of France as well and sold to 65 territories, including the UK, the US, Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Spain, Japan, Brazil, Central and Eastern Europe, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Benelux.
Le Secret d’Elise, the local adaptation of Marchlands, attracted 8.3 million viewers (29% market share and 37% of women, which is our prior market target). This mini-event is a high-end drama and stands out by mixing various genres such as thriller, family saga and supernatural, but also by the quality of the directing and its great cast.
What is currently informing your development strategy?
Over the last three years we have changed our editorial strategy in a very bold way, exploring new topics, edgier fare, more diversified artistic perspectives and going into serialised dramas. We have also diversified our talent, appealing to many coming from the French film industry. These initiatives have been very successful and have been appreciated both by the audience and the industry. This was very important for us as we want to renew French drama along with our partners. The next step was to take these experiments to the next level by offering regular high-end dramas to the audience, while reinforcing our traditional schedule with the arrival of new characters. The outstanding results achieved in 2016 show that taking risks is necessary.
Another challenge for TF1 is to think about original creation from a 360-degree perspective. By mixing freemium, pay, linear and non-linear broadcast, we can not only build on our traditional audience but also grab new and young viewers. All our original creations are available on [VoD platform] MYTF1 and we are also creating digital extensions of all these titles.
In the past five years we have maintained excellent market shares for original creations and have even garnered new audiences, especially in the 15-24 target group, which has seen a 5% increase.
Is the drama boom the new normal or do you see the market contracting?
The drama boom is a recent phenomenon in France. It is among the audience’s favourite genres. Local series have evolved a lot, by renewing genres, exploring unusual topics and introducing more provocative angles. The quality of format adaptations has also improved, with such shows now fully localised, integrating into our way of life and our culture. In a way, adaptation is creation.
The risk is not the audience appetite, it is the financing model. All the players in France look forward to a greater profitability.
How has your commissioning process changed over the past year?
French dramas were previously driven by the 90-minute format. This was a guarantee of good quality, but production of such shows was on a small scale. The appetite for series, and for returning characters, forced the TV industry to change and to make the international 52-minute format a standard in France as well. This is one of the reasons French series now sell better internationally.
What’s the biggest challenge for you at present?
To pursue a strategy of high-quality drama and find innovative financing structures to improve profitability. And to increase the international reach of our series while also improving our traditional audience in France and reaching out to new audiences by implementing new consumption models.
What does the drama industry need to address in order to survive and prosper?
Original creation is expensive. We are looking to find new financing models and are willing to work with new partners, such as Netflix or Amazon. Alongside partners, we hope to identify said models and are exploring how to structure windows to adapt to modern consumption. As long as original creations can find a place on TF1, we will continue to explore.
The international expansion of French content is also critical to survive.
What story/genre would you like on your slate that you don’t have?
A 26-minute daily series for our summer schedule.
French broadcaster TF1 is breaking new ground with crime drama Contact, both on camera and off. DQ speaks to series producer Christophe Carmona.
When TF1 first ordered a pilot of mystery crime drama Contact, it was an unusual step to employ a system more synonymous with the US industry.
Unwilling to immediately commit to a full season of a show that placed a new spin on the tried-and-tested crime genre that remains so popular in France, the broadcaster placed an initial two-episode order for the programme.
But following its debut in December 2015, during which the double bill drew an average of 5.7 million viewers, the show was rewarded with an order for six more episodes – to the delight of producer Christophe Carmona. Filming is taking place this summer.
“It’s very unusual. We were the first to try this way of production,” Carmona reveals about the show’s journey to the screen. “TF1 was thinking of getting into production with one, two or three projects that sounded slightly risky. They wanted to test it so we had a lot to do to make the show work. They wanted to see the first two episodes before they ordered any more.”
Contact stands out from other police series by way of its central character, Thomas Adam (played by Thomas Jouannet), who has an unusual gift: by touching an object, he can see the memories of its previous owners.
“We were the first to do a cop show with anything fantastical in it,” Carmona asserts. “We’re not used to doing this kind of series here in France and TF1 has a very broad audience. They wanted to see if it could reach a certain level of ratings (before ordering more episodes).”
Carmona and his production company Carma Films, were looking to produce a new type of cop show for French television when he saw a documentary about Noreen Renier, a “psychic detective” who has collaborated on more than 600 city, county and state investigations in the US.
“It gave me this idea of doing something with her gift,” Carmona says. “I also wanted to tell a story about two brothers. I put these two ideas together and the story began to develop.”
Contact opens with Thomas – who 15 years earlier had travelled to the US in pursuit of his parents’ murderer – using his gift while working with the FBI. But after receiving an ominous warning, he returns to France to protect his policeman brother – and the pair soon become entangled in a mysterious plot related to the death of their parents and the disappearance of their sister.
Carmona recalls being unhappy with the first script drafts, which he describes as too “entertaining.” Instead, he and TF1 wanted something “more dramatic, more realistic,” and so writing continued until last spring when the greenlight to start production was given.
“It’s a semi-contained series with a strong arc about the two brothers because there is a mystery over who killed their parents,” he explains. “We know that maybe Thomas hasn’t killed the (real culprit of the murders) and that the guy coming after his brother might be the person who really killed their parents. This is the main plot. So we had to find a balance between this story and the ‘case of the week.’
“Thomas’s gift is not only something that allows us to play with some of the classic codes of procedural cop shows, it’s also a way to access the inside of characters we meet during the series. As Thomas sees their memories, he gets direct access to things that are very intimate and private, and it gives him a special relationship with all of them. This can be fun or dramatic, and is very useful to the storytelling.”
Despite the fantastical elements behind the series, which is distributed internationally by About Premium Content, Carmona says he insisted that the show be as realistic and natural as possible, from the production design to the cameras used during filming.
“The main aim was to make the viewer believe Thomas could exist in the real world,” he says. “I wanted the picture to have a vintage look, because modern cameras and lenses to be very sharp and are too perfect. I felt that if we had some imperfections in the picture, we could add to the impression that this was real and actually happening.
“We used lenses that are very old, that hadn’t actually been used for more than 40 years. The look is very different – the more realistic and natural, the better. We didn’t want it to be far from reality, quite the opposite. We went in a direction that led the viewer to think this could really exist in our modern world.”
As a result, very few special effects were used in the two-part pilot, barring the visual sequences depicting Thomas’ visions that were manipulated to make them stand out from the rest of the series. But more than anything else, Carmona points to the writing as the most challenging part of the production.
“We have to keep the quality of the scripts as high as we can and we have to dig a bit deeper into our characters,” he explains. “The arcs of the two main characters are very important for us and we want to go deeper into them.”
Next up for Carmona and Carma Films is thriller La Forêt for France 3, which he describes as akin to Top of the Lake or The Killing, and political hacker drama Republic 2.0 for Arte.
All these series contribute to claims that French broadcasters are opening their doors to increasingly “risky” stories – something for which Carmona says “producers in France have been waiting a long time.”
He adds: “The networks were airing many good foreign shows from the UK, Sweden, Denmark and, of course, the US. But viewers experience these shows and then demand that French TV productions have the same quality.
“As a producer, I love that TF1 took a chance with Contact because it’s unusual, it’s new and it’s challenging for us and the network. We have a good way of working with each other and it’s a good collaboration. The audience response and strong ratings are encouraging for the future.”
French drama is evolving at an increasing pace, but while broadcasters and producers are widening their international horizons, the most dramatic changes are taking place at home.
Change is afoot in France, but while landmark international coproductions might be grabbing the headlines, traditional ciné movies and crime procedurals are being replaced by serialised dramas and a gamut of new genres on screen.
Tetra Media Fiction producer Emmanuel Daucé says French drama is in the middle of a revolution that dates back 10 years to when broadcasters shifted their focus from TV movies to series, inspired by the work of US premium cable network HBO.
Gritty crime dramas such as Braquo and Spiral subsequently broke through to the international market, and more producers are now trying to follow their lead as France seeks to capitalise on the increasing demand for global drama series.
One example is The Young Pope, which sees pay TV network Canal+ join forces with HBO and Sky to tell the controversial story of the beginning of Pope Pius XIII’s pontificate. The cast is headed by Jude Law and Diane Keaton, while all eight episodes will be directed by Oscar winner Paolo Sorrentino.
“It was HBO series, which not many people watched in France, that changed everything,” Daucé explains. “Telling stories through images is so important in France that we needed a cultural validation that TV could be interesting, and HBO helped a lot.”
Stéphane Drouet, producer and co-founder of MakingProd, says he is developing series for “almost every broadcaster,” as well as producing season three of cop show Cherif for France 2.
“Networks are still looking for self-contained episodes, but more and more they’re looking for serialised drama,” he adds. “Broadchurch did really well on France 2 and it may have accelerated the need for this kind of programme. They realised it would really work in primetime in France.
“Of course, there are still cop dramas. It’s a format that still works so well. But for a lot of years it was mainly procedural – now it’s more serialised, which is a good thing, and it also opens the door to more serialised dramas that aren’t about cops.”
Paris-based Ego Productions is behind TF1 series Alice Nevers, which will begin production on its 13th season this autumn, while new drama Zone Blanche, commissioned by France Télévisions, will begin shooting in April 2016. Ego is also responsible for the French adaptation of UK drama Doc Martin, which ran for four seasons on TF1.
Executive producer Pascal Wyn says French drama is playing catch-up to other territories by trying to broaden the international appeal of its stories, in the face of traditional series that still prove popular among domestic viewers.
“At the moment, the TV drama business is trying to create a revolution,” he explains. “French TV producers all want to make French television better and more international, as in Sweden, Germany and, of course, the USA. French producers want to make programmes with international appeal.
“Broadcasters say they are looking for new stories, but in fact they are very suspicious of new programmes because traditional French drama always works.”
Another factor behind the changing face of the country’s TV drama, according to Endemol France MD Nicholas Coppermann, is the decreasing reliance on US series. As long-term output deals for series such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Grey’s Anatomy, House and NCIS come to an end or the shows are cancelled, primetime slots are opening up for domestic series.
“The channels used US dramas as primetime shows and it was very difficult to compete using French scripted drama,” Coppermann says. “Although there are some very good US series now, they aren’t as mainstream or coherent with French tastes.
“The channels that previously thought it was expensive and risky to pay for local drama compared with US series now feel they need some strong local pieces. They are also ready to buy more series. All this combines to create a much more favourable environment for French writers, producers, actors and directors.”
Endemol label Leonis Productions was responsible for telemovie L’Emprise, which told the true story of a woman who was acquitted of killing her abusive husband. Coppermann says the project represented a leap of faith for TF1, which he says was rewarded with the highest-rating French drama since 2007, attracting 8.6 million viewers (and 9.8 million after seven days).
The film, which debuted in January, has since been sold to Antenna 3 in Spain.
“Our drama business is up and running and we recently signed a deal for a procedural with TF1, as well as a thriller miniseries called Le Domaine for M6,” Coppermann adds. “It is penned by writer/director Hervé Hadmar, who was behind the huge French hit Les Témoins (aka Witnesses), a drama that made quite some noise because it was sold to Channel 4 in the UK before its debut in France, which is quite rare.
“TF1 used to be sceptical about miniseries, but it’s more open to them now. There’s a movement towards more serialised miniseries in France because it’s easier to grip the audience’s attention with those. However, the main free-to-air channels still need some self-contained shows. So both those genres are required at the moment.
“Canal+ wants more miniseries because it wants to create an event with every show. I think it has come to realise that its returning series, no matter how good, are not making so much noise, so it needs to bring back miniseries. TF1 has a slot for procedurals on Thursday and it wants that to be strong, but it’s also open to miniseries. The time of ‘no serialised shows,’ which was making things complicated for the French creative community, is now behind us, so there’s room for all kinds of dramas.”
Canal+ is currently preparing for the fall launch of Versailles, a 10-part historical drama created by Simon Mirren and David Wolstencroft and produced by Capa Drama, Incendo and Zodiak Fiction.
But what is the cause of France’s late arrival to serialised series? Daucé says television in France has struggled to escape the shadow of cinema but, as in other territories, the tide is slowly turning in favour of the small screen. In particular, he credits another Canal+ series – breakout supernatural drama Les Revenants (aka The Returned) – for helping to improve the reputation of television series in France.
“Viewers weren’t very familiar with the format,” he says. “This is because of the importance of cinema in France. The biggest recent hit in France was Les Revenants. This is a brilliant TV series but its strength lies in its cinematic qualities. The filmmaking is brilliant. It was produced by Haut et Court, a production company that makes feature films, and was created by filmmaker Fabrice Gobert, not by someone from TV.
“Now, slowly, TV series in France are receiving hype. It’s only very recently that viewers and people in the industry have started to take more of an interest in television. There are two worlds in France — cinema and TV, and there’s still some friction between the two.”
Tetra Media Fiction’s slate includes period drama Un Village Français (pictured top), which will air its sixth season this autumn on France 3, with a seventh and final season due to begin production by the end of the year. It is also producing Les Hommes de l’Ombre, a political drama now in its third season on France 2.
Daucé adds that broadcasters are also now more open-minded about the type of series they broadcast. “Canal+ helped a lot, again with Les Revenants,” he explains. “This is a genre we never have usually. When I started Un Village Français, I was told period dramas were too difficult to produce and cost too much. But there have been a lot of period dramas since.
“Now we are, in a way, in a revolution of the way we think about TV series. Our problem is that for a long time we didn’t make TV series. We now have producers and writers who specialise in making them but this is still pretty new for us.”
With this shift in focus to television drama, the industry will only become more experienced, and this expertise will be boosted further by the surge of international coproductions being built in France.
In June, Canal+ and Swedish public broadcaster SVT unveiled Jour Polaire (aka Midnight Sun), the first ever French-Swedish drama copro. It follows a French detective who is sent to the far north of Sweden to investigate the murder of a French citizen.
Created by Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein, and based on an idea by Henrik Jansson-Schweizer and Patrick Nebout, it is produced by Atlantique Productions, Nice Drama and Filmpool Nord. The cast includes Leïla Bekhti and Gustaf Hammarsten.
Atlantique has also partnered with Keshet UK, the London-based production arm of Israeli distributor Keshet International, to develop English-language drama Crater Lake. The eight-part series, created by Ron Leshem, is described as a “life-affirming, character-driven show about death.”
Oliver Bibas, MD at Atlantique, says: “People are more and more aware of international coproduction opportunities. Canal+ has a strategy to do more coproductions. It is also focused on French drama, but there is a place for coproduction. It’s the same for Arte, and now we’re seeing what will be the next move for France Télévisions, which should also step up in this area.”
Bibas says Atlantique is now developing series it wouldn’t have considered as recently as two or three years ago. In particular, the company is remaking Django, a spaghetti western from the 1960s, and is also on board the reboot of science-fiction series Metal Hurlant with producer Jamie Mathieson. “They’re not something we would have done previously but because of online platforms such as Amazon, Netflix and Canal Play, there are so many new outlets that you can go deeper into a niche genre, which wasn’t the case three or four years ago,” he says.
“We’re trying to get some more niche shows into development. Western and sci-fi are not traditional genres for scripted drama in France. But we feel that when we’re pitching shows to the networks, there is an appetite for this. The market is changing – there’s new demand from networks, and you have to find shows that are in line with our times.”
In fact, Netflix is already in production on its first French-langauge drama, Marseille, with Gerard Depardieu playing the lead role of the city’s mayor in a political story of power, corruption and redemption.
Created and written by Dan Franck, the eight-part series is produced by Federation Entertainment and will launch on Netflix in 2016.
Franco-German network Arte epitomises the change in attitude towards drama among French broadcasters. Switching from
TV movies to serialised programmes, it was among the first to import European shows, most notably Denmark’s Forbrydelsen (aka The Killing) and Borgen, plus Swedish sci-fi series Äkta människor (Real Humans).
The channel is now forging ahead with its coproduction strategy. Launching this autumn is Occupied, a 10-part political thriller based on an idea by novelist Jo Nesbø and developed with Norway’s TV2.
It has also partnered with Denmark’s DR and Borgen creator Adam Price on a new faith-based series called Herrens veje (aka Rides Upon the Storm).
Alexandre Piel, Arte’s deputy head of drama in charge of international acquisitions and coproductions, says he’s not sure if what is happening in French drama is a revolution but admits the landscape is changing fast.
“Our behaviours have completely changed in the last five years,” he says. “We jumped from 90- to 52-minute slots; from mainly standalone collections to serial dramas. That’s a major change.
“Canal+ was one of the first to establish the strategy. Arte followed and we were very much open to European content as a pioneer channel. Now everyone has an eye on European content.
“From international acquisitions to French content, the standards have changed and everyone has to cope with it. Then we have to see in the coming months – in terms of international distribution and coproduction – if it’s a major change or just a short-term change.”
Arte’s coproduction strategy began with it working as a minor partner on Occupied, before co-developing Herrens veje. It is also onboard sci-fi drama Trepalium. Piel hopes Arte’s next copro will be a French project on which the network can take the lead.
He adds that Arte is open to new ideas, as it doesn’t want to run the same sort of shows that air on other channels.
“It means more risk-taking but the idea is to jump on originality, creativity and innovation, and to be able to offer something more audacious,” he says. “That’s really the keyword in terms of ambition.
“There are a lot of projects on the market. There are plenty of series but some are quite similar. I feel there’s less difference, creativity and innovation than a few years ago, but that’s normal. The industry is restructuring so we need new and different projects and a different way to work altogether.
“That’s why we’re doing a lot of pre-buys on series including Wolf Hall, Indian Summers and Danish series Norskov. We’re trying to understand the way some channels and producers are working so we can work with them in the future.”
Meanwhile, MakingProd is developing Destination Mars, about an expedition to the red planet, with Russia’s Star Media, Laurence Fishburne’s Cinema Gypsy Productions and Poland’s Synergy Films. It is also producing Salazar, a period coproduction with Spain’s Plano a Plano and distributor Eccho Rights.
But while Drouet acknowledges that international coproductions are gaining traction, he says networks are still predominantly focused on homegrown drama.
“French drama is becoming more and more attractive for partners and producers, so we have a lot of people coming to us saying they would like to make international coproductions,” he says. “A few years ago it wouldn’t have been possible but now it is, and it shows the success of TV drama in France.
“There will always be a strong demand for domestic drama but even now the pure French TV series are getting better and better. And even if it’s a purely French series, we have interest now from foreign countries to get shows like The Returned or Witnesses. It shows there’s a new era of TV series in France.
“Even though the shows are taking place in France and are spoken in French, now they interest foreign markets more and more because the stories we tell are more international and more universal.”
Bibas agrees that domestic drama is still the model in France. “We have a very traditional setup,” he explains. “It’s nobody’s fault – this is the way the French system has been for the past 20 years – but now more and more producers and networks are opening up a bit to something that is more modern in terms of French drama, and it’s a very good thing. We’re on the right track but it takes time to change the market.”