Tag Archives: Vertigo

Shooting Bullets

Alan Sim, executive producer of Bullets, explains why this Finnish series is an example of a high-end show that isn’t afraid to take risks to deliver a drama blending political themes, a complex storyline, flawed characters and shocking twists.

From the team behind The Bridge, The Killing and the Millennium trilogy that introduced Lisbeth Salander to the screen comes Bullets.

Described as a powerful, character-driven international thriller, the story plays out against the backdrop of Helsinki, Belgium’s criminal underworld and the troubled streets of Georgia.

Alan Sim

The story centres on Mari, an intelligence officer who goes undercover to befriend an asylum seeker who has arrived in Finland and is of interest to the authorities, owing to the fact she is Madina Taburova, a former recruiter of suicide bombers and one of the most wanted terrorists in the world, who was previously assumed to be dead.

In the 10-episode series, Mari sets out to win Madin’s trust in a mission to find out why she has returned from the grave and uncover her intentions.

Starring Krista Kosonen (Putous), Sibel Kekilli (Game of Thrones) and Tommi Korpela (Eternal Road), Bullets was created by Minna Virtanen (Underworld) and Antti Pesonen (Bordertown), who writes alongside Matti Laine (Bordertown) and Kirsi Vikman (Mother of Mine). The coproducers are Peter Nadermann (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Killing), Thomas Disch (Modus, Greyzone) and Jan De Clercq (The Team, Hassel, Occupied 2), with Virtanen producing and Pete Riski (Dark Floors) directing.

Produced by Vertigo and coproduced with Lumière and Nadcon, it launched earlier this year on Finnish OTT platform Elisa Viidhe. Sky Vision distributes the series.

Here, Elisa executive producer Alan Sim tells DQ about developing the series, the writing and directing process and why it might appeal to international audiences.

What are the origins of Bullets?
Bullets was co-created by producer Minna Virtanen and writer Antti Pesonen. We started discussions with the producer about four years ago, and we thought it was a unique story that had to be told.

How did Elisa become involved? What was the appeal of the show?
Elisa became aware of the story through the producer, Vertigo. We knew Nadcon was also the coproducing partner from Germany and that the experience of Peter Nadermann, who was behind The Bridge and the Millennium trilogy, was going to be a great asset. We thought the story was topical, modern and had real edge.

How did you develop the series with the producers?
We believed in the writing, so we were keen to support the creative process from the writing through to the financing of the second window and distribution. We played a key role in finding the majority of the money for the series.

How does the series mix elements of crime, espionage and political drama?
The story is quite subtle. It draws you in, making you think you’re watching one thing, and then it pulls you deeper and deeper into a much bigger story. In many ways, it plays on our own beliefs and prejudices to make assumptions about the plot, which are constantly challenged. Our key characters wear many hats, so the lines of good and bad, right and wrong are blurred.

Bullets stars Krista Kosonen as undercover intelligence officer Mari

How does the show balance characterisation against a twist-laden plot?
The characterisation is key. All of our central characters have lost or are losing someone in their lives, and this theme is key to their drive and process. We unravel their personal stories delicately throughout the series and this blends perfectly with the plot.

What was the writing process like?
Actually very smooth. Finnish writer Antti Pesonen is actually based in the UK, so had written the treatments and scripts in English. So for myself, a Brit, and our American script editor, it was a fairly simple process.

What do stars Krista Kosonen (Mari) and Sibel Kekilli (Medina) bring to their roles?
They are both incredibly talented actors. What they do so well is in the small detail. They manage to pack such punch into small bites of dialogue, making scenes feel taut, tense and engaging. In this sense it feels very much like a Finnish series. They are not showy or flashy – all the emotions are bubbling just under the surface.

How would you describe the style and tone of the series?
It’s very stripped back. It’s bold without being over the top, and stylish without trying too hard. It’s without gimmicks.

How has director Pete Riski filmed the series?
He has kept it very clean, efficient and dry. Again, it’s not showy – it’s not saying ‘look at me.’ It’s very Finnish. It’s real, it’s believable. He’s done a great job of taking a tricky story and peeling back the layers episode after episode.

What locations appear in the series and how are they used?
We filmed mainly in and around Helsinki, but we also used Brussels as a backdrop. We shot some of the Russian scenes there and also travelled to Georgia, which doubled for Afghanistan and Chechnya.

Game of Thrones’ Sibel Kekilli plays Madina, a former terrorist to whom Mari is trying to get close

What was the biggest challenge making the series and how was this overcome?
That’s a big question. With every production, there are challenges at every level, from delivery of the scripts to financing through to production issues and then a very tight delivery schedule. I think the answer to all of these is seeking compromises and finding solutions at every turn to keep the production on track.

Why does Bullets stand out among the huge number of series being produced?
We have seen very little of Finnish series internationally, so this is one of the first big series out of the blocks. People are waiting to see what’s new from the Nordics, and the Finns are producing some great work. It’s also a really challenging story and does a very difficult job of humanising a woman who is a terrorist. We see her as a three-dimensional character, not the two-dimensional depiction you get in the news. That makes the story unique and challenging.

Why would it appeal to international viewers?
People love crime drama and particularly crime drama from the Nordics. We have already seen a lot from Denmark and Sweden, so putting Finland on the map is interesting for International viewers. They are seeking out quality drama from new territories, and Bullets delivers this. Many of the viewers will also recognise Sibel Kekilli, aka Shae from Game of Thrones, so she is a big draw. This, coupled with having the team behind The Bridge and the Millennium trilogy, makes it internationally exciting.

How is Bullets an example of the stories Elisa wants to tell?
Elisa Viihde has a unique voice. We are looking for interesting, challenging stories that are compelling to watch, and we are not afraid to take risks to cover difficult and complex subjects. Bullets is a great example of this, combined with the highest possible production values, great casting and a fantastic script.

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On the right track

As the battle for the best projects becomes ever more fierce, leading drama commissioners and producers open up about their own development processes and reveal how they work to bring new series to air. 

For television drama commissioners, the development process must feel a lot like spending their working hours at the races, looking for the right horse on which to bet and willing it to cross the line in first place.

The financial power of SVoD platforms has changed the game for those picking up series for their networks, with the battle for projects now increasingly fierce as partners come together earlier in the process than ever.

Meanwhile, producers are reaping the benefits of an increasing number of buyers looking for original, brand-defining shows. But how is the development process changing at both broadcaster and producer level, and what challenges do they face in the new television landscape?

Sky Atlantic’s epic Roman drama Britannia

Anna Croneman, SVT’s newly installed head of drama, admits very few of the Swedish broadcaster’s scripted series are developed in-house. Instead, writers or writer-producer teams will pitch her ideas and SVT will then board a project from the start. But Croneman says her development slate has been slimmed down to ensure viable projects are singled out early on.

“Last year we cut the development slate significantly, which means we can spend more time on things we really believe are right for us,” she explains. “We lose some projects to the international players, but there is really no other broadcaster doing what we do in Sweden, in the Swedish language. But once again, getting the right talent is an even greater challenge now.”

That challenge is amplified by the competition from Netflix and HBO Nordic, which is starting to commission local original series. “I see companies trying to tie down writers by employing them, or doing first-look deals on ideas,” Croneman adds.

HBO Europe pursues projects from both single authors (such as Štěpán Hulík’s Pustina) and those that use writers rooms (Aranyelet). “In some cases we go through quite a lot of storylining processes; other developments go to first script very quickly,” explains Steve Matthews, VP and executive producer of drama development at the firm. “Sometimes we will polish a pilot through a number of drafts, sometimes we will commission a number of first drafts. It all depends. There is no set system; every project grows organically – we are proudly writer-led in our developments and do our best in each case to find the best support we can bring to the process.”

The company seeks to join projects as soon as possible, and Matthews says there are no rules about what materials it needs to consider a pitch. “We like to be involved early so that we can offer support in that crucial inception,” he says. “That’s when we can help the team understand our needs as a broadcaster and, crucially, for us to understand what the writer is trying to do or say and so support them in that process. A shared vision early in the development fosters a sense of joint ownership and collective focus on the core idea.”

HBO Europe’s Aranyelet is adapted from Finland’s Helppo Elämä

When its original-programming operation was in its infancy, HBO Europe’s attention centred on adaptable formats. But Matthews says the network group wanted the same thing then as it does now – shows that feel fresh and relevant in the territories for which they are made, whatever their origins.

“The results include shows that are based on formats, like Aranyelet [Finland’s Helppo Elämä] and Umbre [Australia’s Small Time Gangster], but that push ahead into new stories that are entirely authored by our local teams,” he explains. “Furthermore, adapting formats has proven an excellent training ground. Our brilliant teams in the territories have nurtured stables of writers who have learned their craft on series like our various versions of In Treatment and are now showrunners passing on their knowledge to the next groups of talent we bring in. So we feel we have the experience and confidence to no longer rely on formats. For our new slate in Adria, for instance, we decided at the start we would only develop original ideas from local talent.”

UK broadcaster Channel 4 is known for its eclectic drama output, from topical miniseries The State and National Treasure to shows that take an alternative approach to familiar genres, like Humans (sci-fi) and No Offence (crime).

“We have regular conversations with producers and writers and have a realistic development slate,” explains head of drama Beth Willis. “We don’t want to flirt unnecessarily with projects we don’t love – it’s a waste of time for the producer and the writer. So we will be clear from the off about whether we think it’s for us. And if we do say we think it’s for us, we really mean it.”

As a commissioner, Willis says she will offer her thoughts on early drafts and throughout production, and that the increased competition for scripted projects means her team is now more conscious of the defining characteristics of a C4 drama. However, like Croneman, she notes that “the biggest competition is in securing talent for projects rather than specific projects themselves.”

Producer Playground Entertainment adapted Little Women

“We receive hundreds of pitches a year from independent production companies,” says Rachel Nelson, director of original content at Canada’s Corus Entertainment. Her team read and review each piece and have bi-weekly meetings where they determine what might be suitable for Corus’s suite of networks, which includes Global and Showcase.

“We work mostly with producers, rather than with a writer only. We are open to ideas and will accept any creative, from scratches on a napkin to full scripts,” she says, adding that Corus’s focus now falls on projects within targeted genres. “We’ve also learned how important it can be to take risks and not be afraid of doing that when we feel strongly about specific projects. We experienced this first-hand with Mary Kills People. We received the script, read it right away and were so impressed that we moved to an immediate greenlight on this show by an unknown writer, pairing her with an extremely experienced team.”

Fellow Canadian broadcaster Bell Media – home of CTV and Space – is also open to developing projects that arrive in any form, though a producer should be attached fairly early in the process, says director of drama Tom Hastings. That said, its development process hasn’t radically changed in recent years, even as the company moves with programming shifts such as the trend for shorter serialised dramas.

“We take a ‘steady ship during stormy weather’ approach,” Hastings says. “As our channels have strong brands and identifiable audiences, we remain committed to developing drama programmes that best fit those brands and work for those specific viewers.  We remain very selective about what we develop and we take our time, demanding the best of everyone, including, most especially, ourselves.”

Arguably the biggest battleground in the world of development is the race to secure IP, with producers scrambling to pick up rights to films, stage shows and, in particular, books – often before they have even been published.

James Richardson

Transatlantic producer Playground Entertainment is behind new adaptations of Howards End and Little Women, and has previously brought Wolf Hall, The White Queen and The White Princess to the small screen. But adaptations, like every development project, are not a “one-size-fits-all process,” says Playground UK creative director Sophie Gardiner. “Sometimes we will commission a script before going to a broadcaster – maybe because nailing the tone is crucial to the pitch and you can’t do that in a treatment – but more often we prefer to work with a partner in the initial development.

“Not only does this mean you are on their radar and they are invested in it from the get-go, but they can often be genuinely helpful. However, there’s no doubt the SVoD firms are looking for material to be pretty well developed, and more packaged [compared with what traditional broadcasters want].”

The Ink Factory burst onto the television scene with award-winning John Le Carré adaptation The Night Manager in 2016 and is following up that miniseries by adapting two more Le Carré novels – The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and The Little Drummer Girl. Both are  again with Night Manager partners AMC and the BBC.

“Relationships with broadcasters are vital, and it is via those connections that we get to know each other and forge a sense of where our taste synthesises – and, from there, opportunities evolve,” explains Ink Factory head of development Emma Broughton. “Sometimes we will work on the seed of an idea and build it ground-up with a broadcaster. Some of our projects have broadcaster attachments before they have a writer or director. On other occasions, we will develop an idea ourselves to one or two shaped scripts and take those – with a series bible and, potentially, a director and cast attachments – to a broadcaster.”

Broughton says the development process has become “more innovative and collaborative,” thanks to opportunities to build stories not confined to the UK. But increasing competition means The Ink Factory must be more distinctive, original and bold in its ambitions, she adds.

Author Štěpán Hulík’s Pustina for HBO Europe

“It’s a terrific challenge,” the exec continues, “from bringing passion and vision when pitching in a highly competitive situation to secure a book, or developing projects that attract the most exciting and creative on- and off-screen talent. It’s all about the excellence of the work, being collaborative and honouring authorship.”

A “fairly traditional” approach to development is employed at Komixx Entertainment, which follows the tried-and-tested method of sourcing existing IP with a built-in audience and using recognised writers and producers. Keeping the original author of the IP closely involved is also seen as an important step to stay true to the material, in an effort to remove as much risk to broadcasters as possible.

What is different about Komixx, says Andrew Cole-Bulgin, group creative officer and head of film and TV, is where the company sources its IP, using both recognised authors such as Robert Muchamore (the Cherub series of novels) and new content from non-traditional publishers, such as self-publishing community Wattpad.

“As a young-adult producer, it’s crucial to consider that Generation Z is an audience made up of digital natives, so the best content comes from within their digital roots,” Cole-Bulgin argues. “Transitioning and retaining this audience from one digital platform, like Wattpad, to another, such as Netflix, is easier and more successful than pursuing a linear broadcasting approach.”

Komixx now has a raft of projects in development simultaneously, instead of focusing on a select few. Cole-Bulgin also believes the increasing power of SVoD platforms has transformed the production landscape, providing huge opportunities for producers. “As they look to quickly expand their libraries of content, we have to adapt our development method to fit their needs,” he notes.

Feature producer Vertigo Films has built its reputation on the back of Football Factory, Monsters and Bronson but is now breaking into TV with Sky Atlantic series Britannia. The epic Roman-era drama is set to debut in the UK early in 2018. Co-founder James Richardson says the firm is regularly “idea led,” often by the talent involved. “But every show needs to be somehow off-kilter – commercial but never straight,” he adds. “And we like projects that we feel we haven’t seen before, or that are tackling a subject we have seen before in a completely different way. Britannia, for example, subverts the historical genre.”

Vertigo has also had Sky pick up Bulletproof, a crime drama starring Ashley Walters and Noel Clarke and showrun by Nick Love. “Going from film to TV has been such an exciting transition creatively and I am in awe of execs in the TV world for creating shows over such a long space of time, since we have just had to make 90-minute films for most of Vertigo’s lifetime,” Richardson adds. “The process – and why we want to make a project – is the same, but there’s just more story, much more story.”

Looking forward, Richardson believes the development process for television drama, which can already take several years, will take even longer. “Getting projects to a place where they are ready before shooting – the film model – will become the norm for many shows. It makes a big, big difference.”

Komixx’s Cole-Bulgin concludes: “With companies like Facebook launching into the broadcast market, it will be fascinating to see how producers deal with the increasing demand for shortform scripted content for the audiences who are consuming their content via mobile platforms.”

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