Tag Archives: Thomas Bourguignon

Monkey business

Comedy drama Kim Kong retells an unbelievable and compelling true story for French broadcaster Arte. Thomas Bourguignon from producer Kwaï Productions tells DQ about the series.

It’s a story stranger than fiction: a movie director is kidnapped by a foreign dictator and ordered to make a new version of King Kong that will bring glory to his country.

And yet the premise of French comedy drama Kim Kong is based on an unlikely true story.

The series follows Mathieu Stannis, a bitter and frustrated director who, while shooting a mindless action flick in Asia, is abducted by spies from a neighbouring country. Enraged by his country’s abysmal movie production industry, the despot wants the French filmmaker to helm a new adaptation of classic monster movie King Kong that will glorify his regime.

Faced with an inept crew, equipment that dates from the Cold War and the crazy demands of the dictator, Mathieu’s life now depends on the success of the film.

The series has a strong pedigree, coming from the firm behind political drama Baron Noir, Kwaï Productions. Armance coproduces the show for French broadcaster Arte, while FremantleMedia International distributes.

Here, producer Thomas Bourguignon from Kwaï tells DQ about the story that inspired the series and the challenges he faced in production.

Thomas Bourguignon

What were the origins of the series?
The idea came from Simon Jablonka, the screenwriter. He told me the story of South Korean director Shin Sang-ok who was kidnapped by North Korea in the late 1970s. The leader at that time asked him to direct movies, notably a remake of Godzilla, which is 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.
We wanted to look at this kind of story and make a show not about North Korea but about dictatorship and the freedom to be creative, and how you can create when you’re trapped like this.
Our other inspiration was Misery, Stephen King’s novel, because it’s also about a guy who’s kidnapped by a fan and he has to rewrite his last book because she’s not happy with it. So there were two sources of inspiration. We wanted to make this story not about a specific regime or specific country but about every country, every regime and every type of creator. It’s really about creativity and constraints.

How do you balance the comedy and drama?
The situation is very dramatic from the beginning to the end but it’s dramatic as in movies like Gold Rush, MASH or The Ladykillers. The ground is very serious but we build several distortions that make comedy. It’s a question of life and death but we wanted to have elements where you can do nothing but laugh. The situation is always serious and asks the main character, played by Jonathan Lambert, to be very serious. So everyone around him acts strangely but he is very straight. The conflict between his straightness and the strangeness around him creates the humour.

How was the show developed with the network?
We wrote two or three pitches describing the plot, the main characters, our sources of inspiration and what we wanted to speak about. We also discussed the work of a screenwriter in the world of broadcasters. Sometimes you are confronted by a situation when the broadcaster asks you to cut things and change things. It was funny to tell to Arte we were going to talk about broadcasters – they found it very satirical. Arte is one of the most creative channels in France so we were very at ease with them. We always worked with Arte because we were sure it was not something for other broadcasters – it was a question of format and spirit. It was a new kind of comedy for Arte too because this kind of comedy isn’t on TV.

Kim Kong is based on the true story of a director kidnapped by a dictator and forced to make a movie

How would you describe the writing process?
There were two writers: Simon Jablonka at the beginning, and then we hired Alex Le Sec. It was written very quickly – we knew where we wanted to go and we were precise about what kind of comedy we wanted to make. The question was more about the drama because we were asking ourselves, ‘Are people going to continue to laugh if we kill someone off?’ We also wanted to be very clear that the show was not about North Korea; it’s about a fictional country. So we had to ask ourselves a lot of questions about the language the characters should speak in this place.
For a while we wanted everyone to speak in English because that’s the convention when you see an American movie, with everyone speaking English even though the action takes place in Germany or Turkey or wherever. But Arte were very clear they wanted it to be shot in French and another language because they are a Franco-German channel, so it was important for them to promote the French language.
In the end we decided to let them speak in Chinese, as the action takes place in Asia and it’s a common language for the region – but it’s not about China either. It was easy for us to say it’s filmed in Chinese and it was also easier for casting to find Chinese-speaking actors in France because we have a big community of Chinese people in Paris.
We spent a long time casting, as there are not a lot of French movies shot with Chinese actors. We were not sure we could find anyone, so we started the casting very early in the process, even before the scripts were finished, to be sure to find them in France.
Arte was excited by our casting. The majority of the actors are Chinese-speakers, but not all of them. The ones who weren’t Chinese had to learn the language phonetically and it was a long process; they had to be trained by Chinese teachers. Frédéric Chau, who plays Choi Han Sung, and Christophe Tek, who plays the dictator, are not Chinese speakers, so they had to learn everything by heart. It was difficult for them but they did it very well. It was a real challenge for them and for the director to direct in Chinese too.

How did the writers work with the director to create the look of the show?
We made a mood board with the director, Stephen Cafiero. He’s a young director; it was the first time we worked with him and the first time he worked with Arte. He had done a very good family comedy before and I saw some of the commercials he had done as well.
It was interesting for us because we had to create a whole world that doesn’t exist – the clothes, the set decoration, everything had to be invented. So he collected lots of images from lots of different regimes, from Russia to China, Korea to Cambodia, and we created the look of our regime using the mood board.
We decided to mainly shoot in the studio because it’s a movie about movies and creation, so we wanted to control the look of the movie. We shot 90% in the studio in Paris, where we built the sets.
As our country doesn’t exist, we wanted to create our own look. It was not in Cambodia, Thailand or South Korea, it was not in China. We never found the right country because they were either too modern, too old or too specific. It didn’t correspond to what we dreamed of, so we decided to make it in France in a studio. The exteriors were filmed in Thailand.
After we finished shooting, we erased everything we didn’t want in the frame, using lots of special effects to erase houses that weren’t on our mood board. That took a lot of work in post-production.

The show was created by Bourguignon and Simon Jablonka, who previously worked together on Baron Noir (pictured)

What were the biggest challenges?
In addition to the casting and the language, finding out where we were going to shoot was also challenging. At one point we thought we were going to shoot in Kazakhstan because because we found very interesting locations there and we thought we could cast people from Central Asia. [Kazakh capital] Astana is an amazing city but it is very difficult to shoot there because Kazakhstan’s president is not very democratic. We scouted across the world looking for a set for a long time before finally shooting in Paris!
Our King Kong is very small – that’s part of the problem for the director in the movie because the camera is very old, it’s shot in 16mm and the crew is very inefficient. And he has to shoot something, because the dictator has told him, ‘Either you shoot something or we shoot you.’ So the tension between the reality and what the dictator wants makes the comedy of it.

What new stories are being told in France?
This is something quite new; something that would have once been impossible. We first had this idea years ago, before Simon and I decided now would be a good time to try it. We were finishing Baron Noir and I said I would like to make a comedy about politics. It’s something that couldn’t have been done four or five years ago, but there have been many changes in France and broadcasters are more open-minded than before. They know the audience want something new, something different. They are watching series on different platforms. It’s a good time for producers and creators.

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France’s finest

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.

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