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.
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.
“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.
“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.
“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.”
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.”
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.”