On a recent trip to Istanbul in Turkey, I was fortunate enough to meet Kerem Deren, a leading TV screenwriter who, along with his wife Pinar Bulut Deren, has been responsible for some of the most groundbreaking Turkish dramas of recent years.
Passionate advocates of progressive and though-provoking TV, the pair recently launched an initiative called The Writers Room (Yazi Odasi), through which they are attempting to establish a new mode of practice for the Turkish business.
Explaining how he entered the business, Deren says he studied theatre at university, at which point he “never thought” he’d work in TV. “But in around 1999 I was goofing around with some actor friends and we managed to create a show,” he says. “It was then I realised that Turkish TV was going to be a big sector where it would be possible to earn money but also to do something creative.”
Deren started pitching stuff: “At first I was doing treatments and parts of scenes. But then in around 2007 I got my first show, a youth series called The Class. It only ran for about five or six episodes but it got good critical reviews and opened up some new opportunities. I met Kerem Catay at producer Ay Yapim and we started developing a show called Ezel, which was loosely based on the idea of The Count of Monte Cristo.”
Ezel was a hit both domestically and internationally, selling to around 80 countries worldwide. It also gave Deren the chance to formulate a new way of thinking regarding TV writing: “There were two things. Firstly Ezel was creative and progressive, which showed that this kind of show could be made within the structure of Turkish TV. Secondly, we spent a lot of time working on it because we loved what we were doing.
“Usually shows are created in a very short time in Turkey, but we developed it for around a year. I think that was a key reason why Ezel achieved such a huge international following.”
After Ezel, Deren started working on Ucurum (The Cliff), another tough, uncompromising programme – this time looking at the issue of human trafficking in Turkey. Deren is proud of the fact that it tackled a subject that was not well understood, “and I know for a fact that our telephones hotlines saved lives,” he says.
Deren and his wife work on a number of projects together but also have their own projects. Ezel was a collaboration, for example, whereas The Cliff was Kerem’s project. In parallel, Pinar worked with TIMS Productions on Suskunlar (Game of Silence), which is now being remade by NBC in the US. In 2013, the married team came together again for 20 Minutes.
It was after this that they decided to set up The Writers Room, a creative collective that inhabits a beautiful purpose-built building overlooking the Bosphorus Sea in Istanbul.
According to Deren, the Writers Room was set up (in July 2014) to achieve three things. Firstly, to give writers more time to develop great shows; secondly, to give them greater control over the rights to their projects; and, thirdly, to improve the dialogue between writers and other parts of the production process.
“The writers are often segregated from the rest of the system, which doesn’t seem like a good way of working to me,” he says. “You don’t get writers as showrunners, for example, as you often do in the US. What we want is to improve the craftsmanship of Turkish writing.”
Currently, the Derens’ Writers Room has six full-time writers “who are being paid whether they are working on a live show or not. Usually writers in Turkey aren’t paid during the preparation period so this is a way to introduce a kind of paid development. In addition to this, we bring writers in on a project-by-project basis to work with us on our shows.”
Deren admits things are unlikely to change overnight in a market where writers are often churning out 120-page scripts in four days to feed a voracious primetime production beast.
“This is kind of revolutionary, but it is a necessity,” he says of his project. “Turkey has had a lot of success because the people here are so ingenious – but we have to make the system sustainable. We have to find a way to avoid writers burning out after a few years.”
The gruelling process is not the only challenge for Turkish writers, who also have to operate in a censorious environment. “There is a kind of self-censorship in the system that comes about because experienced writers and producers know what broadcasters will or won’t allow on air. So there are character types I can’t include in stories because it wouldn’t be allowed.”
Deren sees two possible solutions to this creative conundrum: “One is to work more closely with the international market, which might enable us to circumvent the system. The other is the internet. We are working on a project that is aimed at the web, where the system is freer. The main challenge here is that internet-based viewing is not well developed in Turkey yet.”
In the meantime, big-budget TV and film remains the best way for Deren to ply his trade, making a difference one project at a time. He recently directed a box-office movie and is working on a major series with O3 Media, the Turkey-based production division of MBC Broadcasting in the Middle East.
Completely fluent in English, Kerem Deren can be contacted via this link. Turkey is Mipcom’s Country of Honour this year, so look out for a lot of Turkish drama coverage in the trade press in the run up to October’s event.