Tag Archives: VRT

The long road

DQ watches the final stage of filming for Belgian drama GR5: Into the Wilderness, in which a group of friends embark on an emotionally and physically demanding journey from the North Sea to the Mediterranean.

Nowadays, it’s a common cliché to describe a drama character or a reality show contestant as having gone on a journey, whether they face personal crises or life-changing experiences.

The cast and crew of Belgian drama GR5: Into the Wilderness, however, have been on a literal journey together across more than 2,000km, taking them from the Netherlands to the South of France over the course of five months.

Part coming-of-age drama, part psychological thriller, the story introduces four people who embark on the Grote Routepaden 5 (GR5) to commemorate their friend Lisa, who went missing on the path five years earlier. They decide to make the same journey, from the North Sea, over the Ardennes, the Vosges and the French Alps to the Riviera.

But the heavy physical exertion and mutual tensions take a toll on their friendship, leading to a confrontation. They all have different reasons for making the journey, but one thing unites them – a determination to uncover the truth behind Lisa’s mysterious disappearance.

When DQ catches up with the cast and crew in Nice last October, their journey is concluding, with episode 10 set in the city that marks the end of the GR5. It’s here, beside the bustling flower stalls of the Marché aux Fleurs Cours Saleya, beneath a candy-striped tapestry of canopies overhead, that Zoe finally discovers the truth about what happened to Lisa.

GR5: Into the Wilderness stars The series stars Boris Van Severen and Violet Braeckman

Filming began in May in the Netherlands, with the entire production shooting in almost chronological sequence following the GR5 through Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland and France as if they were doing it for real, filming at various points along the way. Each episode is set further down the path, from Flanders, Ouren, Vianden and Vosges down to Jura, La Vanoise and Mercantour, before finishing in Nice.

Zoe, Lisa’s best friend, feigned injury to avoid the original GR5 expedition, leaving her with a deep sense of guilt when Lisa disappears. The decision to take on the challenge now comes at a time when she’s searching for direction in her own life.

“Zoe is also the most empathetic person of them all, always worried about everybody but when it concerns herself, she is very defensive and cynical,” explains Violet Braeckman, who stars as Zoe alongside Boris Van Severen as Michiel, Said Boumazoughe (Asim), Lauren Callebaut (Ylena) and Indra Cauwels (Lisa). “She loses that during the trip. She’s falling together with her real nature, just being a concerned person and loving her friend very much.”

Executive producer Serge Bierset, from Zodiak Belgium, says that while the group want to find out what happened to Lisa, they are all dealing with their own personal problems and have ulterior motives for making the trip.

“We never forget the disappearance of Lisa, but you’re interested in the characters and why they are doing the trip and how they will evolve,” he explains. “Gradually, they get new clues about what happened to Lisa. So we’re following that, but it’s on two levels – a psychological drama takes over. That’s the strength of it. The landscape is also a part of it. It’s changing all the time.

Director Jan Matthys between the show’s leads

“The guilt Zoe feels towards Lisa is very important,” he says of the character’s motivation to take on the GR5. “This trip is like a process. You could go into psychoanalysis for a few months lying on a sofa, but you could also do this. People want to get out of the rat race and think about life.”

Cauwels says each member of the group has the best of intentions towards the trek, but personal struggles lead to profound transformations. “It’s very nice to be [part of] this mystery that brings them together and makes them deal with a lot,” she says. “I love my character because she’s going through a whole transformation. She starts walking, goes through a lot, encounters a number of problems and then discovers things that were hidden. She has to deal with these things along the way.

“Every character represents so much. There’s no section of the audience that can be left behind; there’s something to relate to for everyone.”

The journey to bring GR5 to the screen began about three years ago, when screenwriters Gert Goovaerts and Lynnsey Peeters came to Bierset with the concept for the series. “Immediately, we felt like this was a different kind of story and also very ambitious because of the road trip and the [production] pitfalls we saw as a producer,” Bierset says.

“Nevertheless, we were ambitious enough to say, ‘Let’s make it work.’ The broadcaster, VRT, was also immediately convinced – it was good luck that one of the commissioning editors is a hiker himself. It was quite clear there was enough story for eight episodes and that it could play on two levels – what happened to Lisa and finding out why these characters go on the trip.

Lauren Callebaut as Ylena

“We took off with development pretty fast. They’re quick writers and, even when they started pitching to us with a one-pager, they had a lot of information already in their minds. Very shortly afterwards, we had a bible of 60 pages.”

Goovaerts first conceived the story 20 years ago when he came upon the red and white markings of the GR5 while walking in woods in Belgium. “It had something intriguing, mysterious and dangerous about it. I was fascinated from the very beginning,” he says. He carried the idea around with him for several years, later partnering with Peeters to make a trailer for a possible story. “For many years, it stayed on our computer, until Serge asked if we had any ideas for a television drama. Then we started thinking of a story. We knew it had to be a thriller.”

It was developed as a mystery about a missing girl, but Goovaerts and Peeters were also set on populating the drama with characters that would evolve and be affected by their surroundings through the course of the plot. “From the beginning, we were also clear the GR5 itself is a character too. It’s an antagonist,” Goovaerts says. “They must confront the physical and the psychological. That was very important to us.”

The writers have worked together for 12 years, describing themselves as each other’s critics. Normally, they would write separately, exchanging scripts and notes, but for GR5, they sat together at one screen, “reading and playing and living it. It was quite a new experience,” Goovaerts says. “The pitch was just a one-page concept – ‘where is Lisa?’ It was just a picture with a yacht on the sea. We really worked on what happened to Lisa and what was interesting and what wasn’t. When we met the broadcaster, we said, ‘We don’t know what happens to her.’”

They also spent a lot of time looking at Google Maps to find real locations they could embed in the story, such as towns, hotels and gîtes where the characters could stop along the way. “We set it out on a calendar,” adds Peeters. “One day, Zoe does 15km, the next day she stays in one place. It was very detailed.”

This proved to be a helpful guide for the production team, though the nature of making a series that follows a group of characters hiking across Europe unsurprisingly presented a number of challenges. “Our scouts went from location to location along the trail to get us as close as possible to where we needed to be with our film crew,” says line producer Barbara Van Poeck. “It’s not always feasible, because you can’t reach some parts of it with all your vehicles. They just went scouting, and it took a long time to find the best locations we needed along the trip.

Drone shots such as this one were used to show the scale of the natural surroundings compared with the characters

“Complicated and extremely difficult” is how Van Poeck describes certain moments in production, such as when cars broke down on the Grand Ballon (the highest mountain of the Vosges mountain range in eastern France). “Those things happened because people are not used to driving at these heights,” she says. “You learn along the way and you solve these problems so the shoot carries on.”

“We were under time pressure, so when our scouts were close to the real GR5 and said, ‘Are we going for it?’ could we say no? There was no alternative,” Bierset continues. “That’s a summary of the whole process. Most of the time, there was no alternative. If you looked at it rationally, you would not do it. You’d call it crazy.

“You cannot really train or be prepared for doing it. We are a Belgian production crew – we’re not used to road movies. There’s no road movie in Belgium, we only have 200km from one side to the other. That’s the reason no other production company decided to do this. Then, as you get into the Alps, the difficulties increase.”

Bierset says he was called a “maniac” for trying to piece together the €6.5m (US$7.05m) budget, a sizeable outlay for a Belgium drama but one he insisted on for fear of making a “light” version of the drama that might ultimately disappoint. Commissioned by VRT’s Eén, GR5’s partners include coproducer Red Balloon Film, German network ZDFneo, Belgian VoD platform Telenet and distributor Banijay Rights, with additional support from the Belgian Tax Credit system.

“Because of the adventure and the fact it’s a road movie, there’s so much money that goes into travelling and accommodation. On every level, it’s so expensive,” Bierset notes. “But we’re not just talking about a Belgian TV series; we’re talking about an ambitious project set across Europe with strong international appeal. That’s why Banijay Rights has come in. If you want to play that game, you have to meet those standards. And you can’t do that with a light version.”

Indra Cauwels plays Lisa

Caroline Torrance, head of drama at Banijay Rights, says GR5’s thriller element meets an international demand for the genre, which is complemented by the stunning locations featured throughout. “You really feel like you’re on the GR5 – it’s one of the characters, starting in the cold and damp and ending up beneath the blue skies,” she says. “There’s been a lot of interest in it. People like the idea of a group of young characters finding themselves. There is also quite a bit of interest in what’s happening in Belgium – there are some great series originating there.”

One of the key driving forces behind the series has been director Jan Matthys, who, at Bierset’s behest, came on to steer all eight episodes and provide an authorial voice to the show. “It’s very satisfying to do the whole journey through the mountains and finally land here in Nice. It feels like catharsis, a relief that we made it,” Matthys says.

“It was not just another story about a missing girl. From the script, the first thing that was very clear to me was how human this story is. There’s a bit of a thriller aspect to it, but it’s also a very human story. There are not only bad guys and good guys and investigations.”

Matthys (Baptiste, The Last Kingdom) is no stranger to the GR5, having once crossed a section of it on holiday with his family. He believes there’s a mythology to the path, which he tried to capture in the series. “I’m not attracted to difficult action scenes, so I was like, ‘Finally, a show with a lot of talking and walking,’” he laughs.

“There are a few interesting action scenes that are completely led by the drama. We have a proper cliffhanger in the literal sense, which was quite difficult, but the storytelling continues during these scenes. If you cut them away, the story doesn’t continue. That’s so important. There’s no redundancy. Every single bit is really needed.”

The drama comes from Zodiak Belgium

Embarking on the journey for real meant little acting was required from the cast to portray their characters’ increasing weariness and exhaustion. “It gets into your body. We’re all dying this week, just being tired, but it helps you in that moment,” Braeckman tells DQ beside Nice’s central port as she prepares for the day’s shoot.

“The first month was so cold. Then there was one day that was so hot, 36°C, and I was wearing leather trousers and a long black jacket and a hat. Sometimes we had to get on a mountain, and you don’t have to act because the air is very thin. But the environment is breathtaking, so it’s really nice to do.”

Matthys says shooting chronologically on the actual path made him change from his usual approach, with the director watching as the actors evolved and became tired just like their characters. “All those things are real. It’s so hard to get them there [in that mindset] if you’re not shooting chronologically,” he says. “It also stimulates your creativity, because sometimes the script says the weather is nice but actually there is fog and you can’t see the landscape. We just embraced the new situation.”

The director also welcomed the “legitimate” use of filming with drones – something he believes has become overused. “But in this case, we needed to show how small a human being can be in this overwhelming nature,” he says. “When we are exploring the characters [at the beginning], the camera is much tighter on them. From episode four on, we go wider and wider and the landscape takes over.”

Belgian drama is certainly changing the international television landscape, with series such as Salamander, Beau Sejour, Tabula Rasa and 13 Geboden (13 Commandments) picking up viewers around the world. Combining psychological twists and stunning natural backdrops, GR5 looks set to follow the same path.

“At the moment, Belgium is quite attractive internationally as a drama producer,” Bierset adds. “People talk about our quirkiness of storytelling – this is not a quirky story but it has its own voice. What would be a risk is if you compare it to Scandi noir, where, after a few years, these shows start to repeat themselves. This quirkiness of storytelling in Belgium is good, but we don’t just want to make the next quirky story. We want to make something authentic.”

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Lights out

When an act of sabotage shuts down a nuclear power plant in Belgium, the country is plunged into darkness. Then when the female prime minister discovers her daughter has been kidnapped, she receives a sinister message: Turn the lights back on and your daughter dies.

So begins Flemish-language thriller Blackout, a 10-part series starring Sara De Rio and Geert Van Rampelberg.

In this DQTV interview, showrunner Philippe De Schepper and producer Helen Perquy discuss mixing crime and politics and talk about the real-life parallels amid the debate about the future of nuclear power.

They also reveal why they didn’t want the series to become a disaster movie, how they used locations during filming and why having a female protagonist changed their approach to the story.

Blackout is produced by Jonnydepony for VRT and distributed by Lagardère Studios Distribution.

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Washed up

Flemish series Grenslanders (Floodland) sets a crime mystery against a unique backdrop as investigators from Belgium and the Netherlands join forces in this cross-border drama.

The mudflats of the River Scheldt, which flows along the border between Belgium and the Netherlands, provide a unique and eye-catching landscape that serves as the backdrop for Flemish thriller Grenslanders (Floodland).

It’s here that a small boat emerges from the mist, bobbing on the water, its cabin riddled with bullet holes and its walls dripping with blood. The next morning, a young girl is discovered wandering among the mud and grass, clearly injured and exhausted by an unknown ordeal.

When Dutch police inspector Tara Dessel (played by Jasmine Sendar) and Belgian psychologist Bert Dewulf (Koen De Bouw) are called in to investigate the mysterious boat and identify the girl, they confront the border communities where the people who live there may be hiding secrets of their own.

Produced by Eyeworks and Column Film for Belgium’s VRT and Avrotros in the Netherlands, the idea for the series came from co-creators Rik D’Hiet and Erik de Bruyn, who also wrote and directed the drama respectively.

De Bruyn had seen a show written by D’Hiet called Het Goddelijke Monster, a saga about a scandal-ridden family, and suggested they partner for a new project. The director was particularly keen to make a show that would appeal to Flemish audiences in both countries.

Dutch police inspector Tara Dessel: her vintage car completes the character’s look

“We speak the same language but we live in different countries so we are a bit estranged from each other,” D’Hiet says, speaking after a screening of Floodland at the Serié Series television festival in France. “So we started imagining what kind of series that could be. Very soon we wanted to create a series set in this special region that is called the ‘Floodland.’ We started thinking what would happen in this kind of region where you have these huge mammoth tankers going to the cities inland and at the same time you have this very regional culture that was very peculiar.

“Then I came up with two images – the first was the image of a girl wandering around in the flat lands on the Belgian border, and this other image was of a small yacht floating around on the Scheldt River. Fom there, we started to imagine and create the story.”

Mylène Verdurmen, head of drama at Avrotros, was immediately enthusiastic about the concept and the idea of creating a cross-border Flemish series. “They pitched it to me through these two images and the characters,” she recalls. “They didn’t have a huge bible yet, just a small story, but the story was told through the characters already and it was this magical thing. You knew it was going to be a great idea.”

The creators took special care to find the right tone for the series, looking specifically at how the characters would look and react to each other. “They all have their specific language and we also wanted a slight irony to the series,” D’Hiet says. “It’s not too serious – it has to be suspenseful, you want drama because it’s a mystery, but it doesn’t have to be too dark. It’s not Scandinavian noir.

“We wanted to lure people into the story in a rather classical way. We have these two main characters, Tara and Bert, but when the story develops we focus more on the other characters as well. It’s really about a cast of strong characters who have their own peculiarities but also that can move you in a special way.”

Peter Bouckaert

Sendar auditioned for the role of Tara on the basis of a single scene. Then, when she was called back a couple of months later, she met de Bruyn and sought to find out more about the character.

“I asked him, ‘What’s her issue?’ because she has issues,” the actor says. “We started talking and it was interesting, so from then on I really got excited. I wanted the part because it sounded really cool. After three auditions, I heard I got the part, but then we had to find my partner and I really connected with Koen, who plays Bert. As an actor you imagine what it will look like and how everything would be. Then when you go to the edit, it’s even more than you can imagine so I’m happy I got to be a part of this.”

For Tara, particular attention was given to how the character would look, from her vintage car and leather jacket to her hair. “I was wearing a wig and it needs to be on tight if we’re going to have boat shots. I don’t want to be losing the wig,” she jokes. “So we had discussions about that and how we were going to do it. Also for me, it was really important that she wears natural hair, because you don’t see that very often.”

Elly Vervloet, head of international drama coproductions at VRT, says Floodland is typical of the character-driven series sought after by the public broadcaster, with both Tara and Bert dealing with personal issues beyond the case at hand. That the story also deals with the subject of human trafficking also means the drama holds contemporary relevance.

“We all know what the problems are and that criminal organisations arise as soon as there is a humane disaster taking place. That is important for us [to talk about],” she says.

Verdurmen describes working on Floodland as “one of the loves of my life,” noting how she teamed with D’Hiet and de Bruyn in the beginning before producers Chantal van der Horst of Column Film and Eyeworks’ Peter Bouckaert came on board. Then VRT joined the coproduction, with distributor Federation Entertainment picking up worldwide rights to the show.

Though Flemish drama budgets do not match those enjoyed by producers in France, Germany or Scandinavia, the cost of the eight-part series grew from an estimated €4m (US$4.4m) to more than €5m, owing to the challenges of shooting on location, travel and battling unhelpful weather conditions. It aired on Avrotros in August and VRT in September.

Belgian psychologist Bert with Tara: on-screen relationship sets the right tone

“But we still had to chew every euro,” he says. “We were confronted with crazy things. When we were approaching May, there was a very rare bird who decided to breed in the area where we were shooting and all of a sudden we could not shoot there anymore. This was a location we had been specifically looking for because of the tides, so we had to scout other locations. We decided to shoot later on when the birds were gone. It was crazy stuff. It comes with the territory. And the weather was extreme.”

Sendar describes the six-month shoot as “challenging,” with production beginning amid freezing temperatures in January. “The entire crew had masks and gloves on. I was in this very cool vintage jacket,” she notes. “But during the summer, when it was 30 degrees, everyone was in shorts and I was still in the jacket and turtle neck jumper.”

With high-end drama budgets continue to rise, coproductions are becoming increasingly necessarily to balance the books and deliver cinematic visuals that can rival many big screen movies. As Bouckaert notes, however, building these relationships purely on financial terms is not a surefire recipe for success.

“Financing has to come in a natural way and this was the case for us from the very beginning,” he says. “We started together at a very early stage when there were no scripts yet. We had to think about what series this would be. There was a single vision and that’s so important. After three-and-a-half years of preparation, we still ran into things we hadn’t expected during shooting.”

While The Bridge and its various remakes have mastered the art of cross-border storytelling, Floodland stands out for its compelling lead characters and the unique environment in which its mystery plays out, holding more secrets that are waiting to be uncovered.

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Jury duty

Belgian drama De Twaalf (The Twelve) follows a trial from the perspective of its jury members, who must decide the fate of a woman accused of murdering her daughter and her best friend.

As the trial proceeds, the drama follows how the the weight of the case affects the jurors’ personal lives.

In this DQTV interview, producer Peter Bouckaert and director Wouter Bouvijn discuss the unique perspective of the 10-part Flemish series and how the jurors’ own baggage influences their thoughts on the case.

They also reveal how the actors were involved in shaping their characters, and discuss why Belgian series are currently shining in the international spotlight.

The Twelve is produced by Eyeworks for VRT and distributed by Federation Entertainment.

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The best of Belgium

On the back of thrilling series such as De Dag (The Day), Tabula Rasa and 13 Geboden (13 Commandments), Belgium is proving to be the latest global creative hotspot for television drama. DQ hears from those in the business to find out the secret to its success.

A heist drama that plays out from the viewpoints of both the police outside a bank and the criminals inside. A psychological thriller about a young woman with amnesia who is the key to solving a mysterious missing persons case. A series inspired by the Ten Commandments in which a modern-day Moses commits gruesome crimes in an attempt to restore moral values in society.

There may not be many plot points that De Dag (The Day), Tabula Rasa and 13 Geboden (13 Commandments), respectively, have in common. But all three series stand out for keeping audiences hooked with innovative and unique methods of storytelling – and all hail from Belgium.

Malin-Sarah Gozin

The small European country (population 11.35 million in 2017) has steadily built a reputation for groundbreaking, genre-busting drama that is now playing to international audiences thanks to a host of streaming services offering foreign-language around the world. Walter Iuzzolino – the curator of Channel 4-backed platform Walter Presents –has been a notable cheerleader for the nation’s scripted series.

Showrunner Malin-Sarah Gozin says creating unique stories by mixing genres has become her trademark, having taken this approach for both 2017’s Tabula Rasa and earlier series Clan, an award-winning, darkly funny family comedy that doubled as a mystery crime thriller. “I always like to blend genres, because fiction and drama has to be a reflection of reality – and real life is a true blend of genres,” Gozin says. “We all have those moments where you don’t know whether to laugh or cry, or are really happy and at the same time really scared. So if I see something like that in drama, it stirs something within and I make a connection. Something magical happens then.”

Mixing genres, she adds, is a way to talk about complex issues in a lighter or more off-beat way. Clan tells the story of four sisters who plot to murder their domineering brother-in-law, but it also manages to be very funny.

“It’s why we use metaphors or fables and fairy tales,” Gozin continues. “You want to talk about something complex in a very simple way. That way you can talk about dark and difficult themes but in a different way.”

Blending genres begins in the development and writing process, but it doesn’t stop there. “You have to continue with that exercise on set with the actors and directors, and also in the editing room afterwards,” Gozin says. “It’s really hard to pitch, sell and market these hybrid genres. When I pitch, I can sum up all the ingredients and explain my vision of how they will taste, but for commissioners it’s hard to get a real taste. They say the proof of the pudding is in the eating – it’s the same with blending genres. There is no real proven method; it’s chemistry.”

Professor T sees a professor working as a police advisor

But what is it about Belgium that has seen it become one of the hottest drama producers? “It’s been in our genes,” Gozin says. “We’re that tiny country with three different language areas. We’ve got this non-conformist stubbornness. At the same time, we’re self-deprecating and we don’t take ourselves too seriously, which results in this quirky flavour. Belgian people have a desire to colour outside the box and a rich imagination.”

Gozin likens Clan (known internationally as The Outlaws) to Denmark’s Forbrydelsen (The Killing) in terms of the impact it has had on raising international viewers’ awareness of a smaller nation’s drama output. The Killing, of course, kick-started the Nordic noir boom that continues to shine a spotlight on Scandinavian series. “Then The Bridge followed, and Borgen, and everybody knew about Scandinavian drama. It even got a tag – Nordic noir,” she says. “It took a dead prick [in Clan] for Belgian shows [to be seen internationally], and other shows followed like Professor T and Hotel Beau Séjour. Now we’ve got a tag of our own – Belgian noir.”

Indra Siera
Indra Siera

Professor T, about an eccentric academic who works as a police advisor, is now in its third season on VRT-owned network Één, with remakes in France and Germany. It, too, contains a jumble of tones, from musical comedy to tragedy and melodrama, making the crimes the eponymous character solves almost an accessory to the style of the series.

“I didn’t have the advantage of lovely scripts. I got very straightforward scripts,” Professor T director Indra Siera explains. “There wasn’t a lot of money – there never is in Belgium – but it appeals to me because working with no money makes you more creative. It’s all about what there is, not what there isn’t. I started filling in the gaps and wanted to make this touching, interesting, poetic, and that was it.

“I was extremely free because there wasn’t that pressure of the money or budget. There wasn’t any pressure at all from the channel, and that gave me wings. There was an amazing cast who did what I asked them to do.”

Siera describes Belgian drama as “the love child of the digital era, where filming is becoming cheaper, and the theatre of poverty – the way you can make something from nothing. You are very creative and very out of the box. Mixing these two things makes Belgian drama.”

Ricus Jansegers, TV programming director of commercial broadcaster Medialaan, says what he likes about the Belgian industry is that writers and producers can still pitch a “crazy” idea and get money for it. “I’ve made some mistakes in the past where I did not say, ‘Let’s go for it,’ but I’m more convinced nowadays that you have to give the power back to the creative people,” he explains. “It’s the environment where things start. I would not say the power is with the channel; it’s important, because you need a broadcaster, but it’s not with them. The most creative things come from giving power back to the creators.”

Jansegers cites 13 Geboden as an example of a “typically Belgian” Medialaan show that has earned international acclaim, something the exec admits he did not expect.

Crime drama 13 Geboden (13 Commandments)

“What I like about this show is we’re the number-one commercial TV station and this was in full primetime,” he says of the dark and chilling thriller. “Normally, this would go on a smaller channel or on a pay TV service. That has evolved through the years.”

Medialaan is now willing to take more risks, Jansegers says, with viewers subsequently coming to expect brave programming choices from the broadcaster. “With success, we dare to do it more and more. Is it helping us? I believe it is,” he says. But such success brings greater interest from third parties looking to get involved in the creative and production process, which in turn risks the quality of the original concept. “That’s nice and fun, and we have to look into it, but on the other hand, we should stick to what we’re good at,” Jansegers notes.

As well as Professor T, VRT has been the home of dramas including Tabula Rasa and Tytgat Chocolat (Team Chocolate, pictured top), a heart-warming romantic comedy about a man’s journey across Europe to be reunited with the love of his life. Notably, producer De Mensen partnered with Theater Stap, a theatre company for people with learning difficulties, with its members playing all the lead roles. The series is now being developed for a UK remake through Reel One Entertainment and London theatre outfit Chickenshed.

However, unlike Medialaan, VRT looks for international potential in its series very early on in their development. “If we have a good concept, it has to be a local drama, a local story. We don’t want international stories. But if we think it has international potential, universal themes or emotions that attract a universal audience, together with the prodco we look at how can we raise the production values to a level where it can travel,” explains international drama executive Elly Vervloet.

Psychological thriller De Dag (The Day)

VRT first broke out internationally with Salamander, a crime drama about a detective who investigates the theft of 66 safety deposit boxes belonging to prominent Belgian citizens. It first aired in 2012, with UK network BBC4 among those that picked it up.

“It’s important when you make drama, as it’s such an expensive genre, to think long term because budgets are shrinking,” Vervloet continues. “We have to see if it’s possible to create a return on our investment, and then we can reinvest the money in new drama series. That’s how we try to make it sustainable for the next 10 or 20 years.

“The high-end drama we make is more expensive but it’s certainly not comparable to other international budgets. We try to see what we need to make a splendid drama series. It’s the only way to create a return on our investment and reinvest it in other drama series.”

Vervloet agrees Belgium should “stick to what we are good at,” rather than specifically trying to target international audiences at the cost of a series failing to gain traction at home. She points to series like supernatural crime drama Hotel Beau Séjour, which travelled around the world but is set in Dutch-speaking province Limburg and uses the area’s unique dialect. “We shouldn’t fall into the trap of making the huge, international drama series everyone is making. We should stick to who we are, with surreal stories and the out-of-the-box genres we explore.”

To do that, the industry must show faith in creative talent and help bring through the next generation of writers, Vervloet argues, adding that VRT will put more time and money into script development in 2019. Hotel Beau Séjour, which aired on Arte in France and Germany and worldwide on Netflix, is also in development for a second season.

Tytgat Chocolat (Team Chocolate) was made with Theater Stap, a theatre company for people with learning difficulties

“If you have a good writer and can attach a younger writer to them, maybe the young talent can learn from the experience and bring another point of view to the script,” Vervloet continues. “Malin-Sarah Gozin is so successful and creative – we really need more young female writers and showrunners. We have a lot of 40-plus male writers. Young female talent have another way of storytelling, another voice, another point of view.”

That Belgium is a creative hotspot isn’t news to Marike Muselaers, co-CEO of producer, financer and distributor Lumière, who says the country has always been that way. The danger now, she notes, is that increasing international recognition of its drama output will lead to it receiving a label that could constrict the risk-taking and creativity that got it noticed in the first place. Scandinavian drama becoming synonymous with – and perhaps limited by – Nordic noir is the most obvious comparison.

“They have to be careful because when a lot of money is flowing in, [creative] risks might not be taken,” Muselaers says. “We should not lose our connection to the audience. That’s the main risk of all these platforms, bringing in a lot of money but not really connecting us to the audience any more. Producers and creators need to keep that audience in mind. And as long as Belgians keep their own viewers in mind and don’t try to make generic, international stuff, they will be fine.”

Whatever’s happening in Belgium, it’s clear this small nation is among the most creative countries in the world when it comes to making drama. “It’s like Belgian chocolates,” Gozin concludes. “They’re all different inside the box but what makes them Belgian chocolates is the filling can be really unconventional. But it’s all quality.”

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VRT and the chocolate factory

Belgian producer De Mensen partnered with a unique theatre company to make heart-warming drama Tytgat Chocolat (Team Chocolate). Co-writer/director Filip Lenaerts and producer Pieter Van Huyck recall the origins of the series, which is an example of how television drama can break down disability barriers for actors.

Flemmish drama Tytgat Chocolat (Team Chocolate) follows one man’s journey across Europe to be reunited with the love of his life. But the inspiring story behind this heart-warming romantic comedy goes far beyond the plot, thanks to a unique partnership that brought together the cast and crew for an adventure both on and off screen.

The show centres on Jasper Vloemans, who works at chocolate manufacturer Tytgat Chocolate and falls in love with Tina, a woman from Kosovo. When she is suddenly deported back to her home country, Jasper and his friends set out off a road trip to find her.

But what distinguishes Team Chocolate from other series is that Jasper, played by Jelle Palmaerts, is a young man with Down’s syndrome, and the chocolate factory employs people with mental health issues and learning difficulties.

Filip Lenaerts (left) and Marc Bryssinck on set

Produced by De Mensen for Belgian public broadcaster VRT, the series was born from a partnership between De Mensen and Theater Stap, a Flanders-based theatre company for people with learning difficulties. Actors from the company play all the lead roles in the show.

The drama was first pitched in 2010, when documentary maker Filip Lenaerts began shooting a film at Theater Stap. He then partnered with the theatre’s creative director, Marc Bryssinck, to bring the acting troupe to the screen.

A short film called Lord of the Flies was produced, before Lenaerts and Bryssinck approached De Mensen with the idea for a scripted series. The duo were already in talks with VRT, so the development process was well underway by the time De Mensen came on board.

Producer Pieter Van Huyck recalls: “We do all kinds of genres, from very niche, bizarre comedy to broad romantic stuff and whodunnits. But we always try to find a unique angle or a unique reason to do the project. In this case, the reason was very obvious.

Team Chocolate was made with Theater Stap, which works with actors with learning difficulties

“To do something with these actors and believe in their talent and make a fully fledged scripted show – not to approach it as a social project but to make a high-quality scripted show – was a good story. When we started to work with these actors, immediately you could see their talents.”

Van Huyck notes that the cast sometimes had difficulty memorising a lot of text or needed help to understand a particular scene, but says they were all extremely talented when it came to showing a wide range of emotions.

“Their acting style is very true and that was something that touched us, so we knew something would be possible,” he continues. “With Marc and Filip, from the start it was very logical for them to make a story about what the actors find important in real life, which is to be independent, to find true love, to make their own decisions and to have relationships. This is the true subject and also what is going on in the lives of these people. That’s why they really understood the script.”

That a Belgian drama would be set in a chocolate factory seemed like a no-brainer to co-writer and co-director Lenaerts. “We had almost no doubt about the chocolate factory,” he says. “We started to discuss it and it’s a bittersweet story so it’s like chocolate, and it’s a Belgian product. We thought it’s a nice thing and, more specifically, we have Belgian truffles in the show that a lot of people know from their childhood. It’s a very Flemish thing.”

Pieter Van Huyck speaking at the show’s premiere

Lenaerts describes writing the series with Bryssinck as a very collaborative affair. Indeed, they sat together every day to pen the scripts, starting in February 2014 and working for about 12 months.

“Since Mark and I are unexperienced drama writers, it took a long time because we had to learn how it worked technically,” says Lenaerts, who filmed Belgian science series De Herontdekking van de Wereld. “So we didn’t write it with the production in mind. We were not thinking about whether something would be too difficult or too expensive. We just wrote what we liked, which made it quite a difficult shoot because we had lots of different and complex scenes and different actors. So it was quite hard work for us for a few months.”

Pre-production began in March 2015 and Lenaerts and Bryssinck were separated for a few months. “Mark was working with the actors and rehearsing and I was finishing the scripts, the location-hunting and the casting,” Lenaerts says. “Then in May 2015, the circus started. We went on the road until mid-September.”

Rehearsals began with rough versions of the script, which was then polished several times to incorporate the actors’ own improvisations.

“This process was repeated several times and there were two advantages,” Van Huyck says. “You recreate a true and feasible story because part of it is coming out of these people’s hearts, minds and lives. Secondly, it enables you to check which scenes are difficult to play and should be adapted. So that prepared us for the shoot, and during shooting the tempo was a little bit slower. We shot fewer scenes per day, but not too [few], because we wanted to treat them as real actors. We also had a budget, which was limited of course, but we had extra people on set to take care of the actors, to assist them and comfort them. Marc, who is very experienced in working with these guys, was around all the time.”

The plot centres on a man’s search for the love of his life

The seven-part series, which debuted on VRT-owned Één in September, was shot entirely on location. “We don’t have the budget to construct very good-looking, expensive studio sets, except for series that are commissioned directly for more than one season, because [with those] we can spread the cost,” Van Huyck explains. “So for a one-off like Team Chocolate, we just didn’t have the budget. We tried to find the right locations and everything was shot in Belgium.”

Lenaerts admis that working on the series felt like he was back in film school, as he had to dispense with his documentary background. But he says preparation was key to staying afloat – adding that, in any case, drama and documentaries aren’t too dissimilar. “You have to tell a story so they’re not that different in essence,” he continues. “Being a director on this huge film set, I just tried to react very intuitively. When I got hundreds of questions, I really tried to give quick answers. I was also surrounded by experienced people. I learned a lot.

“In Team Chocolate, on a Flemish level, almost all the most famous actors are in the series, even for small parts. Often Theater Stap had worked with them before on a theatre stage, so when they heard those guys were making a drama series for television, they were very enthusiastic to join. So the Theater Stap guys were surrounded by great actors and were pushed a little bit. The Theater Stap actors were also challenging our other actors because they were so powerful sometimes. I was really proud of how they did it.”

Team Chocolate was screened at C21 Media’s Content London in 2016 and was also part of the line-up at Series Mania earlier this year. Wild Bunch is handling international sales of the series, which Van Huyck surmises as a “touching show that is feasible for everybody to watch.”

Wild Bunch is the international distributor of Team Chocolate

He continues: “This is really for a broad audience, to watch with the whole family – the parents, the kids, the grandparents, even the pets! This is not edgy stuff, it has nothing to do with pay TV stuff, but I still think a lot of people can like this show. When you start watching this show, you need a few minutes to see these actors but very quickly you forget they’re different and you just see characters, characters you really believe in. That’s something to be proud of.”

The producer also believes the series should encourage others to work with actors who may have disabilities, in whatever form.

“We hope it encourages other people in other countries to try to create their own show with actors who are different,” he adds. “We really think it’s a beautiful way to tell their story without patronising them or approaching something as a social project. They should be treated as real actors and, if you give them that opportunity, their performance is really amazing.”

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Full circle: Tabula Rasa producer Helen Perquy’s journey

Tabula Rasa producer Helen Perquy tells Michael Pickard about the show’s journey from Series Mania pitch to fully-fledged series ahead of its launch on VRT next year.

When the producer of forthcoming Flemish drama Tabula Rasa takes to the stage at Series Mania today, it will mark the completion of a two-year journey.

The psychological thriller was first pitched to industry executives at the annual Paris event in 2014, as part of the European Coproduction Forum.

Now the project has come full circle, with audiences inside the Forem des Images given the chance to see the first images from the series, which will make its debut on Belgian public broadcaster VRT in 2017.

Tabula Rasa tells the story of Mie, a young woman who is locked up in a secure psychiatric hospital. She is visited by Detective Inspector Wolkers, who is trying to solve a disturbing missing persons case when it transpires Mie was the last person to be seen with Thomas Spectre before he vanished.

Helen Perquy
Helen Perquy

It appears to be a cut-and-dry case for the experienced DI Wolkers – except his only witness is a woman suffering from acute memory loss. In order to solve the puzzle and find Thomas, Mie has to reconstruct her lost memories and find her way back through the dark labyrinth of her past.

Produced by Brussels-based Caviar, Tabula Rasa landed at Series Mania in 2014 on the basis of its script, which was written by Malin-Sarah Gozin (Clan).

The writing team was completed by Christophe Dirickx and Veerle Baetens – who is also the lead actress on the series. The rest of the main cast comprises Stijn Van Opstal, Jeroen Perceval, Gene Bervoets, Natali Broods, Hilde Van Mieghem, Peter Van Den Begin, François Beukelaers, Lynn Van Royen and Tom Audenaert. Jonas Govaerts and Kaat Beels are the directors.

“Tabula Rasa is a very human story,” producer Helen Perquy explains ahead of appearing on stage at Series Mania. “It’s a psychological thriller with an unreliable narrator. What Malin always says is it’s like a mind-fuck – and she’s right. As Mie goes through psychosis, she doubts everyone and it’s a bit of a whodunit, but you also question whether she did it herself. You doubt everyone, even yourself, and you feel that tension all the time.

“Sometimes it flirts with horror, but you also have some very recognisable family scenes where you see the love between a family as well as how family can be disruptive. Mie’s memory loss is also reflected in the dementia of her father. There are a lot of very recognisable themes. It’s not an easy story but it should be very captivating, powerful and emotional.”

Perquy says she wanted the series to be challenging for audiences: “The best series make you think and get involved, and this is definitely one of those series. You never know if it’s going to be a success, but all the ingredients are there.”

Broadcaster VRT, which has signed on to the series alongside distributor ZDF Enterprises, will certainly be hoping those ingredients have been blended successfully – as will ZDF Neo in Germany, which will also air the drama next year.

Malin and Helen Perquy present Tabula Rasa at Series Mania 2014
Writer Malin-Sarah Gozin (left) and Helen Perquy present Tabula Rasa at Series Mania 2014

But Perquy, whose credits include Eén series Quiz Me Quick, says Tabula Rasa represents a leap of faith for the Belgian broadcaster – one that sees it follow in the footsteps of several other European networks of late that have shown signs of more risk-taking in this on-demand age as they battle to stand out on the increasingly crowded EPG.

“This is a stretch for them,” she says of VRT. “I know them very well and I went to them because I wanted to have freedom for the authors, the directors and the whole process. But it is a stretch in the sense they haven’t done anything that remotely flirts with horror. Even psychological thriller isn’t a genre that has been presented to the public before.

“It’s really going to be a mind-fuck. It’s really scary sometimes; it’s also very emotional and a little weird.”

The producer says television must continue to take risks in storytelling if it hopes to avoid the problems facing the movie business, whose output Perquy believes has become formulaic and stale.

“We have a lot of talent in Belgium but we always keep telling the same Flemish stories,” she says. “Tabula Rasa is not a Flemish story – it’s a Flemish story as much as it is a British story, a German story or a Scandinavian story. We should, from time to time, not give the audience what they expect. If you don’t do that, things like True Detective don’t happen, but it’s not an easy road for the audience.

“Film studios are using a formula by finding what they think works – such as helicopters, boobs and everything that goes fast – and putting it all in the same movie to make a hit. If you do that over a short period of time, you’ll get an audience; if you do it long term, you’re dead. Movies are going down, but series are going up because the authors make them complicated, they get good actors because they know there’s flesh on the plate. We should do that in Belgium as well.”

Two years after its first pitch, guests at Series Mania will now see the first clips from Tabula Rasa. Projects being presented at this year’s European Coproduction Forum – including Warrior (Miso Film, Denmark), Flight 1618 (MakingProd, France) and The Illegal (Conquering Lion Pictures, Canada) – will hope to replicate its success.

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