All posts by DQ

Under the Influence: Susanne Simpson

The executive producer of anthology drama strand Masterpiece on PBS reveals how the works of iconic filmmakers led her to produce documentaries before tuning into scripted series.

I went to the University of Michigan thinking I was going to be a lawyer because I loved English literature and history. That was just a career path I knew, so I thought it was where I’d eventually end up. But a professor I admired had a course on Fellini, Godard and Bergman and I took a stronger interest in film after that.

When I moved to Boston, I started working on independent documentaries. I made a film with two friends, Eight Minutes to Midnight, about an anti-nuclear activist, and it was nominated for an Academy Award. I feel I’ve been very lucky because it was just by chance I hit on film. I had always been a film and TV watcher, but that one professor is the reason I’m in the business now.

Susanne Simpson

I wanted to be able to work in film, so I started getting jobs as a film editor and then as a TV programme editor. I felt it was a chance for me to see how stories are put together and how people shoot films, until I reached a point when I thought I could write and direct a documentary.

At [Masterpiece producer and PBS’s flagship public broadcast network] WGBH/Boston, we have an excellent system that allows you to be the writer, producer and director of your work, so it was a real opportunity to write and produce documentaries. One was about the Sistine Chapel, another was on Sigmund Freud. Then I got the opportunity to run a unit that made IMAX films.

Science museums around the country were looking for good films and I was able to produce five. One was Special Effects: Anything Can Happen, with George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic, which also got an Academy Award nomination. Then I made a film called Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure, but after that I started doing more drama-docs – and that’s how I came to Masterpiece.

I had known [executive-producer-at-large] Rebecca Eaton for many years at WGBH and became interested in drama while I was supervising some drama-docs for science series Nova, so I started taking a scriptwriting course to learn more about it. At that time, Rebecca asked me to come and help her at Masterpiece. She was a real partner and I’ve been very lucky to work with her for these past 12 years.

When I was young, I didn’t aspire to make feature films. I wanted to make documentaries with purpose. The films that inspired me were Hearts & Minds and The Sorrow & The Pity, which were about the big themes in life. I looked at feature docs as thematically on par with dramas. Then, because of the good fortune of working at WGBH, I got to know Masterpiece and what Rebecca was doing.

Damian Lewis and Gina McKee in The Forsyte Saga

We’re really lucky at Masterpiece because we’re an anthology series, which means we can look across all the programming that comes out of the UK – costume dramas, detective shows and contemporary stories. What we’re trying to do is find the best drama and bring it to the US audience. It doesn’t matter what it is, so in the years before I came to Masterpiece, it had everything on offer – you could bring great dramas like The Forsyte Saga and Prime Suspect [pictured top] to the US. Now, with so many people interested in drama, there are more ideas and more people, certainly film actors, going into drama.

We have been able to introduce great actors like Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Foy, Helen Mirren and Daniel Radcliffe, who are now so well known to the American audience through other films they’ve done. Now we’re just looking for programmes that are thematically relevant to people. We have World on Fire, and because it’s done through the eye of younger characters, even though it’s about the Second World War, it’s very relevant thematically. So that’s one of the things we look for in the programming we choose.

The kind of entertainment I really loved in the early years was State of Play, Cambridge Spies, Spooks, The Forsyte Saga, The West Wing and Mad Men. Now it’s Fleabag, Game of Thrones and The Good Fight. I love a lot of different kinds of programmes. It always comes down to the writing and acting quality. I’m inspired by great art, great literature and great films.

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Job Description: Military advisor

Paul Biddiss gives DQ an insight into the role that has seen him work on series such as War & Peace, Catherine the Great, Taboo and Strike Back.

The life of a military advisor can be a varied one, as Paul Biddiss has discovered, from spending the day coordinating the funeral of a dictator on the set of Armando Iannucci feature film The Death of Stalin to standing beside Batman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman as preparations are being made to shoot another funeral, this time for Superman in Justice League.

After leaving the British Army following a 24-year career in the parachute regiment, Biddiss spent some time working in security, doing protection and surveillance work. Then when he replied to an advert seeking ex-military personnel to play extras in 2014 war movie The Monuments Men, he found he was in the right place at the right time to offer director George Clooney some advice.

Paul Biddis at work on action drama Strike Back

“They did have a military advisor but he was on another set, and he had an assistant who was halfway up the road trying to sort a convoy out,” Biddiss recalls. “I’d never thought about any career in the film industry, and I definitely didn’t think about military advising. It never crossed my mind.

“They were doing a scene where they wanted me and another guy to walk out the lead Land Rover and walk towards John Goodman and just look at him. I said, ‘Can I just make a suggestion? It’s D-Day plus four – you’re not going to drive right up to a burning wagon. You’re going to stop because it could be an ambush. You’d get out, survey the area, and then maybe walk forward just to get a better understanding.’

“[Clooney] looked at another guy and just nodded and went with it. And that was it. That was my first insight and my first piece of advice, which was taken and used. From then on, I got the bug.”

Biddiss was then asked to conduct boot camps for another war film, Brad Pitt-starrer Fury, in which he selected and trained 300 extras to make up the members of Baker Company, while also performing as an actor himself. But he describes being appointed military advisor on BBC drama War & Peace as his big break

Biddiss’s credits include Napoleonic drama Vanity Fair

For the six-part adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s epic 19th century novel, he ran auditions to find actors who could both portray soldiers or ranked officials and meet the physical demands of battle scenes. He then oversaw their training.

“Because it was the Napoleonic era, I had to read up on how they were trained, and then I gave that training to the actors in the same way,” Biddiss explains. “The boot camps consisted of weapons training, weapons safety and drills, which are appropriate for whatever rank they are. Then we’d do historical lessons and then maybe some battlefield scenarios [looking at] how they would communicate with each other.”

Since breaking into the industry, Biddiss has gone on to work in a variety of military advisor and consultant roles on films such as Jason Bourne, Murder on the Orient Express, Tolkien and recent Oscar winner 1917, while his small-screen credits include Taboo, The Crown, Vanity Fair, Black Earth Rising, Pennyworth, Catherine the Great and Gangs of London. Among these are a large number of costume dramas, covering a wide period of history.

Sky Atlantic and HBO copro Catherine the Great

“On War & Peace for example, I got three days’ notice,” he reveals. “I’d never touched Napoleonic warfare before. I just got my face into books and found journals by soldiers who were there. I will look up both officers and the enlisted ranks so I can get an idea of the relationships between officers and men. I did that for the Russians and I did that for the Napoleonic army for the French, because there was a different attitude between them.

“Then when I come to the boot camp, I can talk them through the equipment, how it goes on and where it goes. There’s nothing worse than extras going into costume and they haven’t got a clue what it’s about. I like to be able to save a lot of time on set, and time is money. Those guys should know how that kid should be fitted and, as long as the costume department is happy with it, the guys can do it themselves because they’ve been trained. That’s all part of the process.”

Once the cameras are rolling, Biddiss will conduct risk assessments and ensure health and safety guidelines are followed, particularly when dozens of soldiers are carrying bayonet-fitted rifles. He’ll also be beside the director, watching the action unfold on a monitor and making suggestions if something isn’t quite authentic – though he stresses that he’s always aware of the need to balance between authenticity and entertainment.

“I know it’s not a documentary. There are going to be things that have to be cheated,” Biddiss notes. “I’m not bigger than the film. I’m just part of that small machine, and my job is just to advise.”

Earlier this year Biddiss completed his second season working as military advisor on Sky and Cinemax’s action thriller Strike Back, which returned for its eighth and final run in February. The show follows the missions of Section 20, an elite, multinational, covert special ops team that travels around the globe taking on a vast web of interconnected criminal and terrorist activity.

Tom Hardy in Taboo

Utilising his expertise, Biddiss says he was involved in helping showrunner Jack Lothian and the producers shape the story from the outset, as well as providing guidance about what kinds of missions or weapons could feature. “It’s a pity more shows don’t actually get the military advisor in the writers room,” he says. “They’re able to start working with all the various departments a lot quicker than if they were brought on maybe two weeks before the show starts filming.

“For each episode, I’ll also get the script well in advance so I can start putting in some military and technical jargon for radio procedures. Then we’ll do the boot camps and get the actors confident with the weapons.”

He’s particularly proud of his work with director Bill Eagles to produce a one-shot gun battle scene in season seven, which was filmed in Malaysia and lasted more than four minutes. “It all fell into place. It was just perfect,” he says. “It didn’t get as much praise as I thought it should, unfortunately, because it’s a very niche audience. But it was something I was really proud of. It was done in a very short period of time. There weren’t lots of rehearsals.”

Biddiss says a military advisor’s role is relatively straightforward, provided they respect every department and are willing to work with them to get the best results. “My job is to work with people and not get in their way,” he adds. “It’s not just the costume designer, the director or the actors, but even the supporting artists. You’ve got to look after the people you train. If you get that right, then actually everything else is quite easy because you’ll have everyone on side and everyone will be receptive to any suggestions you give.

“The main thing for me is I just really love my job. That’s the icing on the cake.”

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Storm brewing

The cast and crew of lavish period drama The Singapore Grip welcome DQ to Malaysia, where the weather serves up a taste of events to come in this adaptation of JG Farrell’s novel.

For those who like a great big metaphor front and centre on their TV screens, there is an absolute gem in the first episode of ITV’s stylish new drama series The Singapore Grip. A posh birthday party at a mansion owned by a very rich British ex-pat living in Singapore in 1942 is about to be rudely interrupted by the mother of all storms. The wonderfully named Sammy and his Rhythmic Rascals, who have been holding sway with their enthusiastic trumpeting, will shortly be drowned out by rain and thunder.

It’s a metaphor showing how the gilded, untroubled lives of the Brits in early 1940s Singapore suddenly took a violent and stormy turn when the Japanese invaded. But does it have a parallel in the production itself?

Well, yes and no. Work on the six-part drama, which stars David Morrissey, Jane Horrocks, Luke Treadaway and former Coronation Street star Elizabeth Tan, was affected by storms during filming in Malaysia in the middle of last year. They forced the rapid and efficient removal of all things electrical from the set as soon as one threatened to break.

The vivid displays of thunder and lightning did not herald impending disaster, but such an ambitious production did have its challenges. Based on the book by JG Farrell and adapted for the screen by Oscar winner Sir Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons), the depiction of full-scale war, for example, was always going to be tricky.

Writer Sir Christopher Hampton on set for The Singapore Grip

“We had to film the Battle of Slim River, a key conflict as the Japanese invaded Malaysia and Singapore in 1942, and we kept punting it down the schedule as we worked out precisely how to do it,” director Tom Vaughan says of making the show, which tells the story of a British family, the Blacketts, living in Singapore at the time of the Japanese invasion. “It was logistically challenging and we ended up filming it during the last days of the shoot.”

Vaughan pulled out all the stops to make the battle scenes look realistic. A Japanese tank, a 95 Ha-Go, was built from scratch by production designer Rob Hughes and his team, while various authentic instruments of war including anti-aircraft guns and 25-pounder guns were sourced from museums and collections across South-East Asia. A ghost town – it was supposed to be the site of a new airport in Malaysia but was never used for that purpose – provided a location for the Japanese attack on Singapore’s docks, where buildings could be set alight and blown up.

Regrettably, an awful lot of that type of thing took place in Singapore and Malaysia in 1942, a great deal of it aimed at the Brits. At the time, UK prime minister Winston Churchill described the invasion of Malaysia and the subsequent capture of the crown colony of Singapore as the worst disaster in British military history.

Hampton says: “It was, I would suggest, the first of three irreparable British disasters, the others being the Suez crisis in 1956 and Brexit.”

Jane Horrocks and David Morrissey play married couple Sylvia and Walter Blackett

The blushes of those responsible for what Hampton calls a “debacle” are not spared in The Singapore Grip, a title that refers to both the control of Singapore, first by the British then by the Japanese, and a service on offer in the island’s red-light district.

While all the civilian characters, such as the ultra-rich Blacketts and the many people who exist within their orbit, are fictional, a lot of the military characters – including Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, commander in chief of British forces in the Far East in the run-up to the Japanese invasion – are real and, frankly, don’t emerge with any great distinction.

“You do have to walk a fine line between making fun of people and treating them with respect, but the truth is a great many very costly mistakes were made back then and a misplaced feeling of inherent British superiority existed,” Hampton says. “Such a feeling was part of the reason the British were so ill-prepared for the Japanese attack.”

Nobody embodies that sense of superiority quite like Walter Blackett (Morrissey), a rubber baron always on the lookout for ways to make more money. With the health of his business partner Webb (Charles Dance) failing, he must secure the future of the business, and decides Webb’s son Matthew (Treadaway) is the perfect match for his spoiled daughter Joan (Georgia Blizzard). But his idealism leaves Walter increasingly suspicious as Matthew falls for mysterious Chinese refugee Vera Chang (Tan).

Game of Thrones star Charles Dance as Mr Webb

“There is something about Walter that is in the DNA of a certain class of British man,” Morrissey says of his character. “His life is about order, entitlement. It’s about being a white man – a rich white man.”

The Britannia star is not averse to a little order himself. Each time he takes on a role, he finds a music playlist to match. So what was he listening to on his iPod before he shot scenes as Blackett?

“Lots of classical, lots of swing and artists like Glen Miller and English jazz from that period as well,” he reveals. “They got me in the mood – you certainly don’t want The Rolling Stones or T-Rex in your head before you shoot a scene in a drama like The Singapore Grip.”

Love songs didn’t feature on his playlist, although we see Walter and wife Sylvia (Horrocks) in bed together. But their relationship, at least on camera, is strictly platonic. “I suspect Sylvia probably suffers from migraines,” says Horrocks, a long-time friend of Morrissey, the pair having attended drama school together. “‘I’ve got a bit of a headache, darling’ is probably what she would be saying to Walter.”

Elizabeth Tan also stars in the series, which debuts this weekend

Other relationships are more tactile. The handsome Matthew has two women vying for his attention: Joan is hell-bent on seducing him, but he seems more drawn to the enigmatic Vera.

“It’s all very sexy,” says Tan, best known for playing Coronation Street’s Xin Proctor, the soap’s first regular Chinese character, “and being sexy is an important part of who Vera is. Part of my audition for the part involved me doing a self-tape that included a couple of scenes that were both saucy and funny with Matthew.”

Produced by Mammoth Screen (World on Fire, Poldark) and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment, all six episodes will be available on streamer BritBox following the first episode’s debut on the ITV linear channel this Sunday. Following the opening scene of The Singapore Grip, which shows Matthew searching for the love of his life amid the chaos of the Japanese invasion, viewers will be keen to find out precisely who she is – a fact that remains a secret until later in the series.

“I describe the series to people as a love story, one that is set against the backdrop of the Japanese invasion of Singapore and the end of colonialism, and that opening scene sums that up,” producer Farah Abushwesha says. “We want The Singapore Grip to be epic, and it has that epic feel to it. But we’re also just telling human stories about boy meeting girl, and what happens when boy meets girl.”

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Talking shop

Producer Taewon Jung and director Myoungwoo Lee introduce Korean drama Backstreet Rookie, in which a convenience store manager falls in love with his new employee.

Since its debut in June this year, Korean drama Backstreet Rookie has won legions of fans at home and across Asia.

It first aired in Korea on SBS and later ran on Lifetime, after becoming the first Korean drama to receive investment from Lifetime owner and global broadcaster A+E Networks. Having also become one of the highest-rated shows on streamer iQiyi in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam, Backstreet Rookie is now set to air on U-Next in Japan.

Starring Ji Chang-wook as Choi Dae-hyun and Kim Yoo-jung as Jung Saet-byul, the series is produced by Taewon Entertainment.

Here, producer Taewon Jung, CEO of Taewon Entertainment, and director Myoungwoo Lee discuss adapting the show from a webtoon – a Korean digital comic – casting the series, and why the show has struck a chord with audiences across Asia.

Myoungwoo Lee

Tell us about the story of Backstreet Rookie.
Lee: We often use the word ‘destiny’ when we talk about love. Backstreet Rookie is actually a simple and ordinary love story that we often encounter around us. It is honest and lighthearted. The two protagonists, who once literally brushed past each other, get to meet again three years later at a convenience store.
Choi Dae-hyun, the owner of the store, recognises Jung Saet-byul, who comes for an interview to the store to work part-time. He recalls some bad memories from the past and tries to fire her. But the more he tries to do so, the more he falls in love with her gem-like appeal and sincerity.

What are the origins of the series?
Jung: Park Seong-gyun, a film director in our company who also worked with us on the 2007 movie Three Kims, brought the original webtoon to us and suggested we turn it into a film.

Why did the webtoon stand out as a potential TV drama?
Lee: I loved the fact that it all happens in a convenience store, which is a space where anyone can pass by around the clock, and the store and its patrons never go to sleep. It is a space where the tired and hungry go to get some consolation. The story between the young man and woman happens in such a space. I intuitively knew we could tell a warm and popular story about ordinary people if made well. I thus speedily decided to join the project and started the production soon afterwards.
Jung: We first planned to produce it as a film, following Park’s suggestion. But during the production planning, we realised it would be better to produce it as a TV series first before turning it into a movie.

How did you approach adapting the source material?
Lee: Given that the original webtoon’s narrative structure was rather weak, I had to reinforce the character of the male protagonist to make a miniseries with 16 episodes. Compared to Saet-byul, who had a clear character arc, Dae-hyun’s character needed more strength to lead the series.
I spent much time fine-tuning the series of events that happen when he breaks up with his girlfriend after many conflicts. I paid particular attention to depicting his daily life as realistically as possible so the character would not look artificially fabricated, despite this being a TV series that leaves some room for fantasy.
As for Saet-byul, I tried to express her character as boldly and coolly as possible. I composed the story so that in situations that could feel stuffy, her bold actions would lighten up the story. I got rid of the mature themes from the original webtoon and instead added comic scenes for more dramatic fun.

Backstreet Rookie stars Kim Yoo-jung and Ji Chang-wook

How would you describe the writing process?
Jung: We transformed the original webtoon into a TV series with writer Son Geun-joo [who wrote Backstreet Rookie], who has worked with our company on several other productions. We took out the more ‘suggestive’ elements of the original webtoon while preserving the characters’ appeal.
Lee: While ceaselessly amending the storyline for each episode with the writer, I built the story around Dae-hyun and Saet-byul. I worked on the story every four episodes and, whenever the script for each episode was completed, I amended and added to the story when necessary.
I frequently held meetings to work on the overall story and the detailed storyline of each episode. Because everything was created, other than the character setting that was brought from the original webtoon, I did not fully rely on the original story. What is particularly different from the original story is I tried hard to make Dae-hyun loved by the viewers. This was because Dae-hyun’s character could possibly have looked wishy-washy and unrealistic otherwise.

Why did you cast Ji Chang-wook and Kim Yoo-jung in the lead roles?
Lee: Kim Yoo-jung plays Saet-byul, who is like a character that pops out of a cartoon. Because Saet-byul is in her early 20s in the story, Kim was just the right person to cast. I was a bit worried she could look too young, because she was so famous as a child actor. However, after the first meeting, I was confident I could transform her image. She could make the character stand out better because she has the image of both a young girl and a young woman. Her deep voice also added strength to her character.
As for Ji Chang-wook, his image as a prim and proper young man played a major part in our casting him. His bright and positive character also helped express Dae-hyun well. I wanted Dae-hyun to be played by an actor who would make viewers feel good when watching the series. I could equally not overlook his great impact as a Korean Wave star [referring to the international export of Korean culture]. I believe this played a big role in making the series so popular.

Taewon Jung

Jung: Because our goal was to produce a global TV series from the planning stage, we had to cast actors who are famous worldwide. Ji Chang-wook is not only an actor who is popular in Asia but also the perfect person to play the character in the series. For Saet-byul, the first person who came to our minds was Kim Yoo-jung, and she was indeed the right person to take on the role.

Myoungwoo Lee, how did you work with the actors?
Lee: I tried hard to create an ambience wherein the actors could comfortably approach me from the very start. I joked a lot and held many light meetings to get to know them and help them get close to each other. Because it is very important for actors to have confidence in the director in a comedy, I tried hard to direct confidently and precisely so that the actors would not feel insecure and would act well with full confidence.
In addition, I asked the actors not to act too comically and to precisely express the right emotions in emotional scenes without being excessive.

What was the show’s visual style and how did you create it?
Lee: Our most important task was to make the series depict the most ordinary daily life that anyone could experience. That is why I did not rely on extravagant camera movements or visual techniques. I instead worked hard to emphasise the most honest angles and colours, as well as to create scenes of daily life without artificial elements. I looked for the right locations and settings to produce.
On top of that, I abundantly used bold CG when adding fun factors. I believe that was the boldest visual factor, and the director worked hard on it.
Jung: Like the webtoon, we used many cartoon-like techniques and animated reactions to add more levity to the story.  We also purposefully made the CG a bit more old-school so it would stand out, similar to the style of comic action director Stephen Chow [Shaolin Soccer].

What were the biggest challenges in development or production?
Lee: It was physically very difficult to film, edit and complete the production of the series within a limited time amid the Covid-19 situation. Also, as simultaneous worldwide broadcasts were required, we had to complete the production as soon as possible.
Jung: The Covid-19 crisis worsened from the very start of the production, making filming very difficult. To prevent its spread, we had to keep a safe distance from one another. We also had to wear masks while working and pay careful attention to ventilation because we mostly filmed on site and had to work face-to-face in tight spaces.

A second season of the hit drama is in the works

Why has the show appealed to audiences across Asia?
Lee: I believe it was so popular because it mainly took place in a convenience store, which is a familiar daily place for everyone. It is a setting that everyone can empathise with and take interest in. The stardom of the protagonists also played a major part. I am curious to find out whether our foreign fans understood all the comic scenes found in the series.
Jung: The two protagonists are such lovely characters, and anyone can empathise with the stories of the people around them and their families. As such, the series is fun to watch, immersing viewers while making them both laugh and cry.

What are your plans for further seasons?
Lee: Taewon Entertainment is preparing season two. We would need the collaboration of the webtoon artist and the series’ screenwriter. Unlike season one, it will have to be purely created, so the writer will have more to do.
Jung: We have plans to add more seasons. We finished preliminary discussions with not only the writer, director and actors but also the original webtoon’s artist, Hwalhwasan, to produce more. We’re still working on the story and we plan to start working with Hwalhwasan and Son Geun-joo this fall.

How is Korean drama evolving at home and internationally?
Lee: The content and genres are diverse and are steadily being upgraded. I would, however, like to see more series of diverse genres targeting the global market and not just those that can be well made in the Korean market. Korean TV series are now undergoing such growing pains.
Jung: Korean drama is becoming more creative and diverse, regardless of the genre. I also heard that Korean drama is loved by fans all over on global OTT platforms like Netflix. I think it’s because of its uniqueness.

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House call

Executive producers Ömer Özgüner and Ümmü Burhan tell DQ how Hekimoğlu, the Turkish adaptation of House, is getting back into production and explain the appeal of translating the hit Hugh Laurie-starring medical drama.

Filming is back underway in Istanbul on new episodes of Hekimoğlu, the Turkish adaptation of US medical drama House, after the Covid-19 pandemic forced the series to go on hiatus.

Before lockdown, the show aired for 14 episodes to huge success on Kanal D, becoming one of the country’s top five entertainment programmes. The broadcaster has now commissioned new episodes of the ongoing series from producer Karga Seven Pictures Turkey, which is working in accordance with new safety guidelines. The returning cast includes Timuçin Esen in the lead role of Ateş Hekimoğlu, plus Okan Yalabık, Ebru Özkan, Kaan Yıldırım, Damla Colbay and Aytaç Şaşmaz.

The new episodes are written by Neşe Şen and directed by Hülya Gezer, with Karga Seven’s Ömer Özgüner and Ümmü Burhan executive producing.

Karga Seven Pictures Turkey, led by founding partner Emre Sahin, secured the rights to House from NBCUniversal Formats, while the original series was produced by Universal Television for US network Fox. Hugh Laurie played the lead character Dr Gregory House, a maverick but antisocial doctor who specialises in diagnostic medicine and does whatever it takes to solve puzzling cases. The series ran for eight seasons between 2004 and 2012, and has also been adapted in Russia.

Here, Karga Seven Pictures Turkey CEO Özgüner and chief creative officer Burhan reveal how they adapted House for Turkish audiences, discuss casting Esen in the lead role and explain why they are sticking closely to the original format.

Ömer Özgüner

What was the appeal of creating a local version of House?
Özgüner: House is a show that received such admiration from all over the world. We felt immense curiosity and excitement about how the show would work in the hands of Turkish creators and actors. These feelings were what pushed us to begin this journey.

How was the US version received in Turkey?
Özgüner: The US version of House reached a very limited audience in Turkey, but still managed to created a devoted fanbase. One of the biggest challenges we faced going into this was bringing in new audiences without losing the original fans.

How did you develop the adaptation with Kanal D? Was NBCUniversal Formats very involved?
Özgüner: We worked closely with Kanal D. NBCUniversal Formats was involved as well, but we, as the producers, already had a vision for what the show had to have – a good cast and strong localisation. When they saw that the screenplays had captured our vision, both NBCUniversal Formats and Kanal D were happy with our process. That’s how we were sure we were on to something good.

What were the key elements of the original series you wanted to keep?
Özgüner: House, for us, is all about the characters’ journeys – not only House himself, but also his team. We never wanted to compromise the integrity and depth of the characters. We didn’t want to just translate them into Turkish, but rather to ‘Turkify’ them. While we also kept the events and cases the same, what we mainly worked hard to keep were the individual stories of the characters.

How did you localise the format? What did you add or remove to make it appeal more to a Turkish audience?
Özgüner: We didn’t want to taint the main structure of the original story. We kept the cases and the characters’ motivations the same. But for it to appeal to the Turkish audience, we had to add a touch of local humour. For instance, we added patients and stories to the clinic that we knew the Turkish audience would like and relate to. We even added a completely new character called Muzo to the hospital staff, who brought that little touch of humour we needed and also helped us showcase a new side of the local Dr House that we’ve never seen.

Hekimoğlu, the Turkish adaptation of House, stars Timuçin Esen (centre)

What were the biggest challenges adapting House for Turkey?
Özgüner: The hardest challenge was the medical dialogue, as this is a fundamental part of the scripts and in some cases is very hard to follow. I think there were times when we pushed the limits of Turkish audiences’ understanding and curiosity, which I believe is what House did for global audiences. Of course, we couldn’t just leave the medical dialogue out, but we had a brilliant professor as a medical consultant who helped us overcome this huge challenge by simplifying the language.

What does Timunçin Esen bring to the role made famous by Hugh Laurie?
Özgüner: Timuçin Esen has not just contributed to this character, but created a whole other one. Timuçin is a much-loved actor in Turkey; his most recent film attracted almost six million people to movie theatres. It is very hard to step up as a Turkish person and take on the same role a world-renowned actor. But Timuçin rose to the challenge with great courage.
His relationship with the other actors and the crew, the local touches he made to the character – eating tantuni, drinking tea – and his sarcastic but non-patronising attitude have created a brilliant doctor who many would love to come across at a Turkish hospital. He made the audience accept and love this doctor. It’s an invaluable contribution. It’s also worth saying that Timuçin is so famous in Turkey, and now as a doctor, that during the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Turkish government even used him for a public health campaign.

Where is the series filmed and how do you use locations in the show?
Özgüner: We have three main locations that we use as the hospital Hekimoğlu is set in. We have built a 1,000-square-metre set in a backlot to recreate House’s office, Cuddy’s office and the clinic area. For the rest of the hospital, we use the Okan University campus, and for medical setups such as the MRI machine, we use the Okan University Hospital. Of course, although the hospital is our main setting, we have homes for House and his team as well.

The original House, which ran for eight seasons on Fox

Why do you think the opening proved so popular in Turkey?
Özgüner: Hekimoğlu is an anti-hero who we thought the audience would have a hard time accepting. We thought it would be hard to make the Turkish audience love a character that embodies wisdom and sarcasm at the same time, but we also knew that if they did love him, they would love him immensely for that very reason.
The audience also enjoyed watching the medical mysteries resolve, almost like a crime drama. And successful names like Okan Yalabık, Ebru Özkan, Kaan Yıldırım, Damla Colbay and Aytaç Şaşmaz joining Timuçin Esen in the cast helped us achieve this popularity. Of course, a good adaptation also relies heavily on good writers and good directors, which we were also very grateful to have. The results were beyond our wildest expectations, and Hekimoğlu became a hit.

How has the series been affected by Covid-19 and what steps have you taken to ensure it is safe to return to production?
Özgüner: We took a three-month break after the 14th episode aired. Now, we are back in production and are following strict safety protocols as suggested by our medical advisors, including mandating masks, disinfecting our sets regularly and frequently testing our cast and crew.

Ümmü Burhan

Are you following the original storylines closely in the new episodes, or are you diverting away from House?
Burhan: We are following the original story closely, except for some rare cases that we believe the Turkish audience would not be able to relate to. This was our view on how the show should be from the beginning. The show’s popularity, as well as the ratings, suggest we made the right decisions. We will continue to keep the main structure intact while adding our local touches in the upcoming episodes.

Original drama is in huge demand around the world. What place do you think formats still have in the television industry, and Turkey in particular?
Burhan: For us, producing both originals and formats is invaluable. Right now, we have another project that is going to air on Kanal D, which is completely original. And, however clichéd it sounds, the world now is truly a global village. All content receives equal attention anywhere in the world.
Formats have definite beginnings and ends, have structures that have been worked on, and most probably have been tested in other countries around the world, making them a safer choice. The main thing about formats is that you have to be able to adapt them right. Many formats that have been adapted to Turkey have been sold in other countries more than the original. As long as the adaptation is right, I don’t believe formats will lose importance, especially not in Turkey.

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Making a Minister

Seven years in the making, Icelandic political drama The Minister charts the rise of unconventional politician Benedikt Ríkhardsson to become prime minister.

Benedikt’s job is made more complicated by the fact he is hiding a secret mental health condition that threatens to spiral out of control, as those around him try to hide his bipolar disorder and others aim to exploit it.

In this DQTV interview, star Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, writer Jónas Margeir Ingólfsson and director Nanna Kristin Magnúsdóttir open up about the origins and development of the series. Ólafsson, who plays Benedikt, talks about playing the conflicted character, while Ingólfsson and Magnúsdóttir discuss the challenges of bringing his story to the screen as Benedikt walks the fine line between madness and brilliance.

The Minister is produced by Sagafilm for RUV in Iceland and is distributed by Cineflix Rights.

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On ice

When the summer crew of Antarctic research station Polaris VI depart, 10 people are left to continue working through the long, dark winter. But six months later, the summer crew returns to find seven dead bodies, two people missing and just one survivor – who may be a murderer.

So begins The Head, a Spanish-produced thriller that blends horror and mystery with its whodunnit premise.

In this DQTV interview, director Jorge Dorado and executive producer Ran Tellem, head of international development at Mediapro Group, introduce the premise of the 10-part drama set at the end of the world.

They talk about how they have tried to keep viewers guessing until the final moments of the story, while also revealing that many of the characters on screen may not be who they first appear to be.

Dorado also discusses his love of working with actors and how he gave each one a different animal to represent the character they would be playing.

The Head is produced by The Mediapro Studios in association with Hulu Japan and HBO Asia, and distributed by Mediapro.

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Sherlock abroad

Nurbek Egen, director of Sherlock: The Russian Chronicles, introduces DQ to this Russian take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic detective, pitting him against Jack the Ripper and recreating 1880s St Petersburg.

More than 130 years after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first created Sherlock Holmes in the pages of his detective novels, the iconic character continues to fascinate fans.

In the past decade alone, Robert Downey Jr has played the sleuth in a pair of big-screen blockbusters, while Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller have portrayed him in TV series Sherlock and Elementary, respectively. Japanese drama Miss Sherlock saw Yūko Takeuchi play a female version of the character in 2018.

Now, a Russian series adds a fantasy element to proceedings in Sherlock: The Russian Chronicles. The eight-part series transplants the detective, played by Maxim Matveyev, from London to St Petersburg, where he is on the hunt for a serial killer – Jack the Ripper. The story imagines how the Ripper left a bloody trail in London and fled to the Russian Empire, with Sherlock hot on his trail. New characters Dr Kartsev and Sophia support his efforts, while he also comes up against new nemesis Znamensky.

Written by Oleg Malovichko, the show’s cast also includes Irina Starshenbaum and Vladimir Mishukov. It is a coproduction between Russian independent producer Sreda, Yellow, Black & White (YBW)-owned Start Studios and YBW’s streamer Start. YBW is the international distributor.

Here, series director Nurbek Egen takes DQ into the making of the series, while YBW’s Daria Bondarenko talks up its international appeal.

Director Nurbek Egen on set

How would you describe the story of Sherlock: The Russian Chronicles?
Egen: We shot eight episodes about Sherlock Holmes solving mysteries in Russia. It’s kind of a fantasy based on the classic novels of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which are loved by so many. Of course, in the original tale, Sherlock only ventures outside of the UK once, when he goes to the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland in The Final Problem. As devoted fans of this character, we tried to imagine what would his gift look like in a Russian context.
By placing Sherlock in a foreign culture and having him meet people whose mentality he had never studied, the series casts light on a new side of his character and he opens up even more. We use Sherlock’s notes and thoughts about Russia as a creative tool in the show, not only illustrating his own curiosity but also allowing Russian viewers to discover unknown facts about their own country.

Why did you decide to make a new series about the popular detective?
Egen: Personally, I love the tales of Sherlock Holmes and really try not to miss any adaptations. I love the detective genre as well. To me, shooting the series based on the stories about the legendary character is like musicians paying respect to the greatness of their favourite music pieces.
Essentially, the idea was Alexander Tsekalo’s – he is the concept creator and initially brought the idea to Start. He engaged the following fantastic writers and developers for the script, who are also huge Doyle fans: Oleg Malovichko, Ivan Samokhvalov and creative producer Alexandra Remizova.

What is the ‘Russian spin’ you have put on the character and his adventures?
Egen: In our story, as in the original, Holmes is a skilled chemist. Solving mysteries given to him by his clients, he follows not only the letter of the law but also his own morality and sense of honour, which in some cases replace the norms of bureaucracy.
Holmes often lets people who he thinks are justified in committing a crime avoid punishment. In our show, the character displays more variety than in Doyle’s books. Like Doyle’s character, he has a brilliant mind, sharp observation skills and impressive deductive powers, but our Holmes also thinks outside the box. He’s more physical and he speaks many foreign languages, including Russian. He also has a good grasp of Russian literature, art and music. Our Holmes is a fan of Dostoyevsky’s Crime & Punishment.

In Sherlock: The Russian Chronicles, Holmes is played by Maxim Matveyev

How does Jack the Ripper play a part in the story?
Egen: The beginning of our show is linked to the story of Jack the Ripper, which happens in London. There’s a little artistic licence in combining Jack the Ripper and Sherlock, but they did operate around the same time, albeit one solely on paper. In our version, after a decisive fight with Sherlock, the Ripper manages to get away, wounding Dr Watson. The trail leads Sherlock to Russia.
Holmes writes letters every day, telling Dr Watson about his progress and sharing his impression of Russia. Frankly speaking, the progress is slow. As he starts working, he cannot get himself together and nothing goes to plan. He is convinced his methods do not work in this mysterious country and questions whether he should leave.

How was the series developed?
Egen: It was quite challenging. Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series is believed to be the some of the most popular literature for film or TV adaptation, and there are a lot of Sherlocks out there. My main challenge was making the audience believe our story. In the midst of all these adaptations, I have never seen Sherlock solving mysteries in other countries. Then I understood that placing him abroad would give us a chance of noticing new details in Sherlock’s personality and his abilities, making him more interesting and giving more depth and insight to him as an individual and as a character. During the preparations, the more we got involved with this world and its people, the more we fell in love with them.

Does it have a particular visual style?
Egen: Our series is made in several genres: detective, drama, thriller and action, and some parts are even animated. The most important aspect for me was to capture the character of an unusual man and to show his unique world. Our version of Sherlock walks on knife blades and risks his life on a daily basis. There are enough skeletons in his closet to keep him on edge, so we decided to make this an action series, visually bold and exciting.
For example, St Petersburg is usually a gloomy city but, in our show, it has beautiful sunsets and sunrises, in all shades of red. If it rains, it rains like in jungles. In a nutshell, it’s quite a rollercoaster series. We wanted to show Sherlock not only as a marvellous detective but also as a human who is looking for his own answers.

Vladimir Mishukov stars alongside Matveyev as Dr Kartsev

What does Maxim Matveyev bring to the role of Sherlock Holmes?
Egen: Casting took us six months and all the actors who auditioned loved the script. We were extremely fortunate to get really talented actors who were available. The shoot had its challenges but it was fun. The show is full of twists, turns and surprises. I loved working with Maxim Matveyev – a very talented and hardworking actor. I also loved working with Vladimir Mishukov, a very empathetic, gifted actor who plays Doctor Kartsev.
The actor who plays the chief inspector in our show (our very own Lestrade), Pavel Maikov, stands out for me and I only have praise for him. We also have Constantin Yushkevich, Yevgeniy Dyatlov and Constantin Bogomolov. Last but not least is Irina Starshenbaum, who plays gorgeous, smart and bold instigator Sofya Kasatkina. She is a fantastic actor. The audience will love our cast.

How does the story make use of St Petersburg and its surroundings?
Egen: We did shoot some scenes in St Petersburg. Our show takes place in 1889 when Saint Petersburg was the capital of the Russian Empire. It was a massive production and we were shooting for four months. There are around 150 characters in the show, all of whom are very different. We even have Tsar Alexander III and his entourage in two episodes.
We also built a 3,000-square-metre pavilion to reconstruct the streets and houses of 1889 and we worked hard to match and maintain the colours аnd style. It would have been much more difficult to shoot something like that in the actual city. We didn’t build the key places and country estates – they were the actual locations. Then we combined the set scenes and the authentic buildings in the edit, and the result is pretty impressive.

What are your plans for further seasons of the drama?
Egen: There are plenty of films and TV shows telling the story of Sherlock Holmes produced in Russia and all over the world, but our show is different. It strays from the norm and that’s why it’s interesting. Our show has everything it needs to be successful: a great script written by Oleg Malovichko, an awesome score written by Ryan Otto, a brilliant cast and ground-breaking production design. It has lots of stunts that can grab the audience’s attention and it has very talented producers from Start Studio and Sreda Production Company who understand how to present a high-octane show like this to viewers.
A successful show is not just about great content but about all these people coming together and working together to achieve a great end result. I feel very lucky to have been given the opportunity to make the show and I really hope that our Sherlock will find its audience.

What challenges do you face amid the coronavirus pandemic?
Egen: Thank God we finished the shoot and edit before the pandemic. The Covid situation slowed down the sound editing and the CGI but we are on track. We are all working remotely now and planning ahead. This new Sherlock series will be shown on premium drama VoD service Start this autumn.

Daria Bondarenko

Why might international viewers be drawn to the show?
Daria Bondarenko, Yellow, Black & White’s exec VP of international business development: Sherlock is one of the world’s most famous, fascinating and admired literary characters, with on-screen interpretations of him all over the world. We wanted to create a different Sherlock series, one that was both a thrilling contemporary series and a period drama.
By maintaining the historical period, transposing Sherlock to a different city and country, and combining the glamorous St Petersburg setting with brilliantly choreographed action sequences, viewers get to see this familiar character with fresh eyes. We’re confident our Sherlock will appeal to international audiences worldwide.

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Scarlet fever

Set in the 1880s, Miss Scarlet & The Duke is described as a full-throttle crime drama about the first ever female detective in Victorian London.

Kate Phillips stars as Eliza Scarlet, who is left penniless after the death of her father. Deciding to take over his detective agency, she strikes up a mismatched, fiery relationship with Detective Inspector William ‘The Duke’ Wellington (Stuart Martin) as they solve crimes together.

In this DQTV interview, Phillips and Martin set up the relationship between their characters and reveal why they were drawn to creator Rachael New’s scripts. They also talk about how the series flips its period crime genre on its head with injections of humour and a modern sensibility.

Miss Scarlet & The Duke is produced by A+E Networks International and Element 8 Entertainment, and distributed by A+E Networks International. It has been sold to UKTV’s Alibi, PBS in the US, CBC Canada, Yandex (Russia), Seven (Australia), Lightbox (New Zealand), RTL Germany, Mesimvria (Cyprus) and OTE (Greece), among others.

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Building up Hope

Director Elena Hazanova tells DQ about making Russian drama Hope, an action-espionage series about a wife and mother living a double life as a brutal and efficient contract killer.

Meet Hope. She’s a loving wife and mother who unconditionally dotes on her family by day. But by night, she lives a double life as Russia’s most successful, brutal and ruthlessly efficient contract killer.

Hope is the main character in a series of the same name, produced by Start Studios for Russian streamer Start. Set between the 1990s and the present, 16-part action drama stars Victoria Isakova in the titular role, with Elena Hazanova behind the camera. It is written by Eldar Velikoretskiy, Ekaterina Suvortseva and Ruslan Doshaynov, and Yellow, Black & White is the international distributor.

Here, director Hazanova tells DQ about the central character, working alongside the writers and showcasing a side of Moscow not seen on screen before, while Yellow, Black & White’s Daria Bondarenko explains Hope’s international appeal.

Hope director Elena Hazanova on set

How would you describe the story of Hope?
Hazanova: It’s a story of a woman who had to make a difficult choice 18 years ago. Today, she can’t stand living a double life anymore and wants to escape.

Tell us about the main character and how Victoria Isakova brings her to life.
Hazanova: Hope is a strong woman who’s led a double life for the past 18 years. This level of deception has required an enormous amount of management, emotional resilience and control, which Hope has adapted to a normal way of life. After decades, Hope’s dualistic lifestyle comes under pressure and begins to unravel. Hope can’t accept or unite the two very different sides to her personality, which raises questions in her mind to who she really is.
The producer, Alexey Trotsuk, had Victoria Isakova in mind for Hope from the very beginning. She’s one of Russia’s most revered actresses and has the ability to capture and portray Hope’s internal psychological battle in a visceral way. I had recently worked with Victoria on the film One Breath and we had a strong working relationship with a similar artistic outlook, and I thought it was a great idea.

How was the series developed?
Hazanova: First we shot a two-episode pilot. [After we got the green light], the writers wrote the whole season and we started to shoot all the episodes.

Tell us about the writing process.
Hazanova: Initially we had a writers room with three fantastic writers who wrote the first draft of the script, and then we worked on it together, ironing out any issues. Only then did we do a first read-through with the actors. After a few read-throughs, we could see areas where we could tighten it up. Finally, we arrived at the final versions, which seemed good to all of us.

Hope is played by Viktoria Isakova

What themes does the show discuss and how?
Hazanova: The main theme is the acceptance of yourself; to recognise your flaws and your strengths and accept yourself despite them.

How does the series play out across the 1990s and the present?
Hazanova: The narrative switches between young Hope – the circumstances that led to her becoming an assassin and how that manifests – and adult Hope, who lives in the present and is trying to manage and escape her double life.

Does the series have a particular visual style?
Hazanova: From the very beginning of this project, DOP Alexey Zaikove and I wanted to create a unique, separate world for Hope. We’d been inspired by comic characters and Marvel and DC, which create worlds that are familiar enough to feel real but different enough to almost be a character in themselves. This also gives a lot of flexibility to the production.

Where was the show filmed and how do locations play into the story?
Hazanova: The show was filmed in Moscow, but every scene is different. We tried to show a different side to Moscow, not the one that we are used to seeing in films and series.

Veronika Kornienko features as a younger version of Hope in the 1990s

What were the challenges in making the series?
Hazanova: The main challenge for me was the genre: action. Hope’s my first action series. In fact, it’s my first experience in this particular genre full stop. And I loved it. Of course, there are some special rules I learned during the making of the show, but it was a great experience and I’d love to do another.

What are your plans for further seasons?
Hazanova: The producers and writers have expressed a desire to create a second and a third season of the series. They are working on it. Watch this space.

How do you think Russian drama is evolving both domestically and on the international scene?
Hazanova: Over the last two years, the appearance of streaming platforms has opened up a new ground for content creation in Russia, which has brought amazing opportunities for the creative industry. At the same time, Russian shows are beginning to make an impact on the international stage and are being noticed and bought by big platforms like Netflix and Amazon. It’s a very new opportunity for Russian production, but an exciting and promising one.

How has the pandemic impacted your work?
Hazanova: This period gave me a great opportunity to focus on writing stories. Writing is quite individual and isolated in many ways. My friends say that nothing really changed for editors or scriptwriters! Basically, I have spent these past few months working on scripts and feature stories. And, of course, we all understand how planning is very precarious at the moment, so I hope that I’ll be able to tell these stories in the following months.

The series was made by Start Studios for streamer Start

Why might international viewers be drawn to this series?
Hazanova: The story of internal psychological battles and uniting different aspects of your personality is something everyone can relate to, although Hope’s situation is extremely dramatic the themes of this series can touch anyone.

Daria Bondarenko

Daria Bondarenko, Yellow Black & White’s exec VP of international business development: There is fascination with Russia of the 1990s. Crime was rife, the country was reputedly lawless and violent, and fortunes could be made and lost almost in the same day. It wasn’t a safe place – but, of course, these situations in society bring great dramatic potential.
Additionally, at the heart of the series there is a very dynamic, strong woman who faces a never-ending series of orders and dilemmas resulting from a single decision she made when she was young. Victoria Isakova is brilliant as the lead actress; she really captures the dilemma Hope faces and the price she has paid for the life she leads.
Most people have made a wrong decision at some point and had to face the consequences. This series really examines choices, consequences and the impact of deception on the psyche.

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Royal rumble

Atlantic Crossing opens in 1940 as Norway is occupied by Nazi Germany, with the Scandinavian country’s Crown Princess Märtha and her children finding shelter in the White House as political refugees.

Märtha’s presence in Washington soon influences President Roosevelt’s views on events unfolding in Europe, while what begins as a friendship between the pair blossoms into affection.

As Märtha steps up to fight for her country, she puts her marriage at risk and convinces the president to back Norway, paving the way for the US to join the Second World War. However, her actions cause her to make new enemies within the White House.

In this DQTV interview, stars Sofia Helin and Kyle MacLachlan discuss playing Märtha and Franklin D Roosevelt respectively, while director Alexander Eik reveals why he wanted to tell this little-known story on screen.

Atlantic Crossing is produced by Cinenord in coproduction with Beta Film for NRK.

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Lockdown Games

Irina Sosnovaya, creative producer of Russian subscription-based video service Start, discusses lockdown drama Games People Play, which follows a host of relationships through the coronavirus pandemic.

With much of the world in lockdown at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, pressure was placed on not just jobs, schools and mental wellbeing but also people’s relationships.

Russian anthology series Games People Play, which was filmed and is set during the lockdown, focuses on both positive and negative stories surrounding the bonds people share and how they were affected by the restrictions placed on society.

The eight-part series stars Lyubov Aksenova, Leonid Bichevin, Igor Mirkyurbanov and Aleksandra Rebenok. Written and directed by Konstantin Bogomolov, the show is a Start Studios production for streamer Start. Distribution is handled by Start parent group Yellow, Black & White.

Here, Start’s creative producer Irina Sosnovaya introduces the series and reveals how it was developed and filmed during lockdown, while Yellow, Black & White’s Daria Bondarenko discusses the show’s international potential.

Irina Sosnovaya

How would you describe the story of Games People Play?
Sosnovaya: It was important for us to produce a drama series about relationships during lockdown. There is so much to explore with regard to developing relationships in a closed space. It can be discussed from a variety of angles, and the lockdown has only highlighted the issue.
Moreover, the stories told in Games People Play perfectly illustrate how all the characters in this story are limited not only by the walls of their apartment, but also by the most rigid and insurmountable boundaries within themselves. None of them really know what they want from life, and neither do they want to acknowledge a more terrible isolation – their inner one.

Who are the main characters and how do we meet them?
Sosnovaya: Games People Play consists of three short stories that intersect at the end. The first is the story of a young girl who is asked by an elderly, wealthy businessman to play the role of his mother, paying her a generous fee. This strange game has one rule: the girl should always be in touch, always be in character and should tell only the truth about herself. So, they play, opening up to each other more and more. But the more the characters get to know each other, the more difficult their relationship becomes, because the girl understands the mysterious interlocutor is her father who once abandoned her.
The second story is about lovers who were locked in apartments with their legal spouses during the lockdown – and being forced to be with someone you don’t love is worse than being alone. They take turns fighting with each other on video calls. Hiding in the bathroom, they think about how they will live after the end of the lockdown. The four of them have a virtual birthday party on Zoom. All these characters lock themselves not so much in apartments but in invincible egocentrism. And when talking to each other remotely, their focus is not on understanding each other, but winning in a verbal duel.
The third story is about a real, not-so-vicious love. At its centre are those who are at risk – elderly people who long ago got used to their eternal abandonment. Victor finds his first love, Anna, on Facebook. At first, they shyly correspond, then he finally calls her. They have a life behind them: unhappy love, unfulfilled hopes, unspoken words. It is only in isolation that they begin to move towards each other, taking two steps forward and one step back. The worst thing for them is to start descending from their own mountain out of insecurities, fears, doubts and life experience. As a result, the story of their breakup in the past and the impossibility of a common future are revealed to the audience.

Much of Games People Play was filmed by the actors using phones

How was the series conceived during the pandemic?
Sosnovaya: The project was written, filmed and released during lockdown. It was a kind of social mission to make a project to help people reflect on the situation they found themselves in. After all, for many people, lockdown has become an opportunity to face themselves, their problems and their own inner loneliness. We gave the audience food for thought on a relevant topic, an opportunity to feel less alone, to recognise themselves in the characters and to discuss with them the issues that concern us all during this period.

How was it developed with the writers, director and cast?
Sosnovaya: Obviously it was simply not possible to assemble a large and familiar team during lockdown. It was not safe and, as it turned out, it was not necessary. Therefore, we worked with a minimal team. The talented Konstantin Bogomolov, creator of Start’s Russian Affairs, was both the director and writer of the series. I was a producer, editor and casting director.
The actors filmed themselves on their phones so they were both actors and, to some extent, camera operators. However, we had one director of photography who also shot them with an external camera. The lockdown created quite unusual working conditions, but it seems to us that it only had a positive effect on the result.

Director Konstantin Bogomolov

Tell us about the writing process behind the series.
Sosnovaya: We set a goal to release the project as soon as possible, so that it was relevant and so it could support people at home. We started shooting when five episodes were written; the other three were written during the shooting process. It was an incredible experience for us – the series was released at a time when we were still in production mode.

The series is about love in isolation. How does it discuss this theme, and what kinds of stories are there?
Sosnovaya: ‘Love’ is a very big word. What we are talking about in our project is a more subtle matter. But it is definitely about love: love between a man and a woman that lasts for many years and overcomes any circumstances; the love of a parent for a child; and, finally, love for yourself.
By and large, the stories shown in the series could happen to us outside of lockdown. It’s just that, in this case, self-isolation is an additional trigger. It seems to me the stories that unfold in our series are not tied only to the lockdown: they are psychological, human and they will still be relevant after a while.

How was the series filmed using cameras and screen recordings? Does it have a particular visual style?
Sosnovaya: We used the most secure shooting technology for everyone. Artists were at home and filmed themselves on their phones. Dialogue took place over Zoom and Skype in real time. There was also one external camera. The director and I received the signal from these cameras and managed the process autonomously. All preparation and rehearsals, as well as editing and the rest of post-production, took place online.
If we hadn’t come up with a story that really captured our imaginations, we wouldn’t have started this project. The form should not dictate the content. In our case, the method of shooting allowed us to pay close attention to the dialogue and characters. This story is complex, dramatic and, at the same time, not devoid of irony.

The show tells three separate stories that come together at the end

What lessons did you learn from making a project like this?
Sosnovaya: The Start and Yellow, Black & White teams tried to see the circumstances in which we all found ourselves as a chance to become more creative, adaptive and responsive to the needs of the audience. We tried to see opportunities in this situation, not limitations. For example, we had a chance to work with great talent who we had wanted to work with for a long time but had been too busy to do so.
The lockdown gave us all a set of important skills and showed us how much time and effort you can save if you use or ‘spend’ them rationally. How many brilliant ideas have been born in home offices? All you had to do was slow down and stop rushing around all the time. I am sure that we can make lemonade out of this lemon and learn to work faster and better.

What challenges did you experience while making the show?
Sosnovaya: The main challenge was time – to create a quality product in a short period of time and with a minimal crew. Also, of course, the safety of all members of the shooting group had to be considered – every week we did coronavirus tests for all employees.

What challenges will you face making series after the pandemic?
Sosnovaya: During the pandemic, we stopped shooting and preparing several projects, because it is important for us that everyone we work with returns to their work duties healthy and happy. Now we are gradually unfreezing these projects and preparing to resume shooting, while understanding that any force majeure is possible in the future. And it is important for us to take maximum responsibility for the safety of shooting processes.

Why might international viewers be drawn to the series?
Daria Bondarenko, exec VP of international business development at Yellow Black & White: The pandemic has affected people from all walks of life all over the world. But far from driving us apart, the situation has highlighted what humans have in common: lockdown, isolation, loneliness, anxiety and fear. These universal human reactions to the pandemic, and accompanying emotions, make this drama even more relatable.
The inescapable claustrophobic situation of lockdown provides more dramatic tension to almost any scene – and the screen is held well by experienced and credible actors.
Like most shows, what really makes Games People Play work is not the external Covid pandemic, but the brilliant writer/director and the superb cast. It’s a great show, and it’s unbelievable that they turned it round so quickly.

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Series to Watch: August 2020

DQ checks out the upcoming schedules to pick out 10 new dramas to watch this August, from a psychological thriller written by the creator of comedy Derry Girls to a bold and stylistic drama co-created by and starring Billie Piper.

The Deceived
From: UK
Original broadcaster: Channel 5
Starring: Emily Reid, Emmett J Scanlan, Catherine Walker, Eleanor Methven, Ian McElhinney, Shelley Conn, Dempsey Bovell, Paul Mescal
Air date: August 3
Written by Derry Girls creator Lisa McGee and Tobias Beer, this four-part psychological thriller set between Northern Ireland and Cambridge follows English university student Ophelia (Reid), who falls in love with her married lecturer (Scanlan, pictured). When their affair is interrupted by a shocking death, Ophelia finds herself trapped in a world where she can no longer trust her own mind.

The Fugitive
From: US
Original broadcaster: Quibi
Starring: Kiefer Sutherland, Boyd Holbrook
Air date: August 3
From the creator of Quibi’s Most Dangerous Game comes The Fugitive, which is described as an edge-of-your-seat crime thriller that sees an innocent man on the run, desperate to clear his name, being pursued through LA by a cop who will not rest until he is captured. Fourteen ‘chapters’ will be released daily until August 18.

Little Birds
From: UK
Original broadcaster: Sky
Starring: Juno Temple, Yumna Marwan, Hugh Skinner, Nina Sosanya, David Costabile, Raphael Acloque, Rossy de Palma, Amy Landecker
Air date: August 4
Based on erotic vignettes by Anaïs Nin, Little Birds takes viewers into the mesmerising and intoxicating world of the Tangier International Zone of the 1950s. New York heiress Lucy Savage (Temple, pictured) arrives ready for love and marriage in exotic climes. But when her husband Hugo (Skinner) does not greet her in the way she expected, she steps out on her own. What she discovers is a world in flux, a country quivering on the cusp of independence, populated by a myriad of characters – including scandalous dominatrix Cherifa Lamor (Marwan), who particularly captures Lucy’s imagination.

The Rain (S3)
From: Denmark
Original broadcaster: Netflix
Starring: Alba August, Lucas Lyngaard Tønnesen, Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, Lukas Løkken, Sonny Lindberg, Clara Rosager, Natalie Madueño, Evin Ahmad, Rex Leonard, Johannes Bah Kuhnke, Jessica Dinnage, Angela Bundalovic, Lars Simonsen
Air date: August 6
The third and final season of the Danish post-apocalyptic series picks up where season two left off, years after the rain decimated the population of Scandinavia. With Simone (August, pictured) and Rasmus (Lyngaard) finding themselves at odds on how to save humanity, can they put their differences aside to do the right thing?

El robo del siglo (The Great Heist)
From: Colombia
Original broadcaster: Netflix
Starring: Andrés Parra, Christian Tappan, Marcela Benjumea, Juan Sebastián Calero, Waldo Urrego, Rodrigo Jerez, Katherine Vélez, Paula Castaño, Pedro Suárez, Édgar Vittorino, Ramsés Ramos, Juan Pablo Barragán
Air date: August 14
El robo del siglo (also pictured top) follows the real-life assault on Colombia’s Bank of the Republic in 1994, which became known as the ‘robbery of the century’ after a band of thieves stole US$33m and turned the whole country upside down.

Lovecraft Country
From: US
Original broadcaster: HBO
Starring: Jonathan Majors, June Smollett, Courtney B Vance, Michael Kenneth Williams, Aunjanue Ellis, Abbey Lee, Jada Harris, Wunmi Mosaku
Air date: August 16
Based on the novel by Matt Ruff, the 10-episode series follows Atticus Freeman (Majors) as he journeys with his childhood friend Letitia (Smollett) and his uncle George (Vance) on a road trip from Chicago across 1950s Jim Crow America in search of his missing father Montrose (Williams). Their search turns into a struggle to survive when they are forced to overcome both the racist terrors of white America and the emergence of monstrous creatures that could be ripped straight from an HP Lovecraft paperback.

From: Sweden
Original broadcaster: Viaplay
Starring: Fares Fares, Johan Rheborg, Anna Björk, Sofia Karemyr, Emelie Garbers
Air date: August 16
Set in the idyllic Jordnära, a gated farming community that is seemingly perfect, Partisan centres on Johnny (Fares), who discovers not everything is as it should be and sets out to make things right.

I Hate Suzie
From: UK
Original broadcaster: Sky
Starring: Billie Piper, Daniel Ings, Leila Farzad, Nathaniel Martello-White
Air date: August 27
I Hate Suzie is pitched as a bold, bracing drama about the moment in life when the mask slips, asking if anyone can survive being well and truly ‘known.’ The series introduces Suzie Pickles (Piper, pictured), a star on the wane who has her whole life upended when she is hacked and pictures of her emerge in an extremely compromising position. The eight-part series shows her unravelling as the event ricochets around every area of her life. Suzie’s trauma is detailed through the stages – and episode titles – of Shock, Denial, Fear, Shame, Bargaining, Guilt, Anger and Acceptance as she and her best friend and manager Naomi (Farzad) try to hold her life, career and marriage to Cob (Ings) together.

Unsaid Stories
From: UK
Original broadcaster: ITV
Starring: Adelayo Adedayo, Joe Cole, Nicholas Pinnock, Yasmin Monet Prince, Nicole Lecky,
Air date: TBC
Inspired by the Black Lives Matters movement, this is a collection of four powerful and impactful short dramas illustrating the importance of black perspectives.
I Don’t Want to Talk About This tells the story of Thea, a middle-class black woman who is doing well for herself, who bumps into her former boyfriend, Tom, at a party. They end up reassessing their relationship and the challenges they faced being a middle-class black woman and a working-class white bloke and the insidious and undeniable impact of racism on their love and friendship.
Generational opens when Oliver catches his teenage daughter, Justina, sneaking out of the house to attend a Black Lives Matter march. He fears for his daughter’s safety and is concerned she’s putting herself at risk.
Lavender is about a new mother, Jordan, who has recently had a baby with a black man. The drama centres around an uncomfortable conversation had between Lyndsey, Jordan’s white mother, and her mixed-race daughter.
Look at Me tells the story of a young professional couple, Kay and Michael, who are both looking forward to their date. However, en route to the restaurant, they are stopped by the police. Back at Kay’s home, armed with a recording of what happened, we see the change in them from before the incident and the impact it has on them individually and as a couple.

Strike: Lethal White
From: UK
Original broadcaster: BBC/Cinemax
Starring: Tom Burke, Holliday Grainger, Robert Glenister, Natasha O’Keeffe, Kerr Logan
Air date: TBC
Burke and Grainger reunite for the fourth story in the Strike series, based on JK Rowling’s crime novels written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. In the grip of psychosis, a young man named Billy Knight arrives at private detective Cormoran Strike’s (Burke) office to tell the story of a child he saw strangled many years ago. Strike is simultaneously hired by government minister Jasper Chiswell (Glenister) to investigate Billy’s brother, Jimmy Knight, who is blackmailing him. As Strike and his partner Robin (Grainger) work to determine how the cases might be connected, Robin goes undercover in the House of Commons.

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Virtuous drama

Stephen Graham, Helen Behan and Shane Meadows discuss making Channel 4 drama The Virtues, portraying difficult characters and the importance of telling working-class stories.

From Shane Meadows, the writer and director behind This is England, The Virtues is a powerful and affecting miniseries touching on themes of child abuse, alcoholism, revenge and redemption.

Stephen Graham stars as Joseph, a recovering alcoholic who falls off the wagon when his ex-partner moves to Australia with their young son. He then boards a ferry to Ireland to confront the truth about his childhood in the care system and reunite with his long-lost sister Anna (Helen Behan).

As part of Bafta Television: The Sessions, Graham, Behan, Meadows and the team behind the series discussed Meadows’ inspiration for The Virtues, the development of the characters, the importance of telling working-class stories, and how Behan’s chance meeting with Meadows in a pub kickstarted her career.

Graham is nominated for Best Leading Actor, Behan is up for Best Supporting Actress and The Virtues is in the race for Best Miniseries at the Bafta Television Awards this Friday. Earlier this month, Meadows and The Virtues co-writer Jack Thorne were nominated in the drama director and writer categories, respectively, at the Bafta Television Craft Awards for their work on the show. The duo previously collaborated on This is England ’86, ’88 and ’90, a trilogy of drama miniseries for Channel 4 based on Meadows’ film This is England.

Shane Meadows at Series Mania last year, where The Virtues won the event’s top prize

Shane Meadows had the initial idea for The Virtues two-and-a-half years ago and sought out Jack Thorne to discuss the story…
Meadows: Most of my stuff has an autobiographical element to it, but this was beyond that. Jack was my first port of call as a human being and a writer, to see whether he thought I was right to try to make something with the idea.
I was starting to flesh out a very rough idea based around the Joseph character. I can’t remember whether it was even called The Virtues at that stage. I don’t think we would have known whether it was a film or a series, but [I had] the germ of an idea of somebody who finds something out very late in their life that they’d forgotten had happened to them –  an incident of sexual abuse.
I had the basic framework but, like anything I’ve made, the writing, the improvisation, even on set in the edit, even during the grade, it’s always this kind of refining process.

Filming The Virtues was informed by a scene in This is England ’90…
Meadows: There was a big turning point in This is England ’90 when we were doing the reveal scene, where Lol [played by Vicky McClure] sits everyone down at the dinner table and basically tells them she was the one who killed her dad, and it wasn’t Combo [Stephen Graham].
What I’d learned over the years is that very few takes resemble other takes. [This was] one of those scenes where you sometimes get these guttural responses from actors, and sometimes it’s a wonderful bargaining chip. If that actor knows you’re asking them to go somewhere incredibly deep, there can be some reticence, because you could be asking them to go there 15 times – and no human being on Earth can go into that place 15 times in a row.
We decided it needed to be shot like a piece of theatre, because if it does happen in one take and we’ve got all of these cameras all higgledy-piggledy set up all over the place, we could shoot the entire series like that.
It’s quite a technical achievement, but that really inspired the whole of The Virtues. It needed to be shot so the actors knew that, if we laid something down in one take, we’d got a wide [shot], two mids and a close-up and could go, ‘That scene’s done.’ It might take a bit longer to set things up, but everyone knew when you shouted action that, if you had to go somewhere you were scared to go, you weren’t going to have to do it 58 times afterwards.

The Virtues centres on Stephen Graham’s Joseph, a troubled man confronting his dark past

As an actor, if Shane Meadows calls, you go…
Stephen Graham: It was either Mark [Herbert, producer] or Shane, it was a conversation on a Friday night at about five or six o clock. They were like ‘Can you get to Sheffield?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, of course.’ Obviously I’m not calling myself Batman but if Shane phones, you go.
Working as an actor with Jack and Shane’s writing, it’s the most liberating, frightening, exciting, beautiful experience I’ve ever had the pleasure to have. It is all written beautifully, there are beautiful scenes, there’s beautiful stuff within these pages that you absorb. Your job as an actor is to learn these lines, but you know that, with Shane, it doesn’t necessarily have to go that way. What happens is you read them and subconsciously these words that people speak go into your head. I’m doing a lot of work in creating a character along with Shane, where Jack and Shane have done a lot of work creating the language of a character, which feeds in, and there’s a beautiful marriage that happens.

Meadows met Helen Behan, who was then a nurse, in a pub while he was on holiday in Bettystown, Ireland…
Meadows: Everyone mentioned Helen – ‘You’ve got to meet Helen’ – and I was kind of like, ‘Who is this Helen?’ She came in and it was a mental night because there was a guy who pinched about 15 ladies’ purses and was hiding them all in the cistern. It was a night for the ages.
I met her at the bar, and I was like, ‘Your reputation precedes you, madam,’ and we had a great chat. Me and Jack were writing a scene for This is England ’88 maybe a year later, and I thought, ‘What if Lol goes to see a district nurse to talk about how unwell she’s feeling?’ And I thought, ‘God, I feel like I know a nurse who’s an actress.’ Helen had told me she was a nurse – that was good enough for me. I told the team and, when we were writing, they rang Helen.

Helen Behan: It was a mental night. It’s such a small village, and superstar directors don’t often walk in the door of your local, so I saw a chance and I took it.
When eventually they did call [about This is England ’88], I was leaping up and down and screaming, then coming back [to the phone] and going, ‘Yes, that sounds very nice.’ Because of people like Shane, some working-class people will have a shot because you’re seen and you’re heard by people like him. [Meeting Meadows] was the turning point in my life.

Helen Behan plays Anna, Joseph’s long-lost sister

Meadows is keen to champion new and underrepresented talent…
Meadows: In lockdown, I’ve worked with a few groups [focusing on getting underrepresented talent into work], and Bafta Elevate most recently, and it blew my mind how much talent is out there from places people don’t normally associate it coming from.
Whether it be that they might not have a classical education or that they’re just from a background that’s severely underrepresented, they just never really get that chance. Things are definitely, definitely looking brighter on that front.

Working class stories need to be told…
Graham: We need to find the writers who can tell these stories. The likes of Jack, Shane, Nickie [Sault, producer] and Mark are trying to help those people get those opportunities. What I love about Shane and Jack’s writing is there’s so much humour as well – because we’re not all miserable bastards!

Graham is happy to be known for playing difficult characters…
Graham: I’m never going to be Mr Darcy, do you know what I mean? For me, it’s just about trying to play those parts and being a part of the stories I used to watch as a kid that made me want to be an actor in the first place – all those great dramas I was brought up watching on telly.
Fortunately enough, the stuff I choose is very social, has a message and it’s kind of political. For me, it’s always been about the truth of the story and the humanity of the character. I find them really interesting to play.

But Joseph in The Virtues is a character particularly full of pain…
Behan: Nobody sits with pain as much as Joseph does. Pain demands to be felt, and it’s that examination of the human condition which we all have or will have in our lives. That’s why people connect with it, that’s why it’s so important, that’s why it’s such an amazing programme.
I love working but nothing will come close to that job, it’s been amazing. It’s a happy day at work, it’s a sad day, you’re crunched up, you’re laughing, you’re crying and it’s been one of the best [jobs] of my life.

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At the Top

Actor Jasmine Jobson and the creative team behind British drama Top Boy discuss reviving the Channel 4 series for a third season on Netflix and bringing authenticity to the fictional Summerhouse Estate.

Six years after its second season came to an end on Channel 4, British drama Top Boy returned to screens last year with a third season on Netflix. Ashley Walters (Bulletproof) and Kane Robinson (better known as UK rapper Kano) reprised their roles as Dushane and Sully, respectively, in the gritty and stylish crime series about two London drug dealers on the fictional Summerhouse Estate.

The new episodes pick up as Dushane returns from exile to London to reclaim his throne in the highly lucrative drug market. He teams up with Sully, his spiritual brother, partner and sometime rival, who is also returning to the same streets after his own form of exile – prison – comes to an end. Awaiting them both is Jamie (Micheal Ward), the young, hungry and ruthless gang leader whose ambitions leave no place for Dushane and Sully.

As part of Bafta Television: The Sessions, actor Jasmine Jobson and the creative team behind Top Boy recalled how Canadian rapper Drake rescued the series from being axed, the challenge of depicting the uniqueness of London and how Jobson gets into character.

Jobson is nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Virgin Media Bafta Television Awards this Friday for her role as Jaq in Top Boy’s third season. Earlier this month, casting director Des Hamilton won Bafta’s first ever Scripted Casting award at the Bafta Television Craft Awards for his work on season three.

Drake attends the Top Boy season three premiere

Drake was a fan of Top Boy and teamed up with creator Ronan Bennett to take it to Netflix…
Bennett: After two successful seasons on Channel 4, when Top Boy was cancelled, it was one of those ones I wasn’t able to shrug off. It meant too much. It was an incredible family feeling about the cast and the crew and filmmakers. It was very hard and difficult to understand. When I heard that Drake was interested, I didn’t pay it a lot of mind, partly because I didn’t know who he was. It wasn’t until I met him a bit later that it became clear he was serious and we really had a chance of going forward.
I realised maybe it turns out he’s quite big. We met him in London, myself and my colleagues, and he was great. He was very genuine and just really loved it, and all he said to us was, ‘We just want you to do what you do and all we want to be is the fuel to your fire and to help it get back up again.’ He didn’t want to control it, he wanted us to do the same thing again.

Ronan Bennett

Bennett lives in Hackney, the London borough where the series is set, which helped him to reflect real-life communities on screen…
Bennett: I’m originally from Belfast in Northern Ireland. I would say the community I grew up in was faced with similar problems that the black community in London is faced with. So there was an immediate identification there and a shared background. Then it’s just about, as a writer, keeping your eyes open, keeping your ears open, talking to people.
It becomes very easy for creative people, once you can make a living for yourself, not to move from behind your desk, to stay in front of you computer writing. But I’m really interested in the world around me, I’m interested in my neighbours, I’m interested in the people I pass on the street. When any of them find the time or generosity to talk to me and answer any questions I have, I will always take [the opportunity], because that’s how you learn.
I’m always very happy when people say Top Boy reflects their lives because I’m obviously not from that community, but I’ve spent a lot of time talking to people about every aspect– not just being on the road, but school, family, expectations, dreams, all of those things. As a writer, everything goes into the mix. All the things you see and hear and feel, they all go into the mix.

Talking tough social issues is something Jasmine Jobson loves about the show…
Jobson: It’s so true, so raw, so edgy. It’s been like that from the very first season. Ronan’s been very good at not sweeping anything under the carpet and outlining some of the things that need to be said.

With every role, Jobson strives to embody her character…
Jobson: I have to take a few traits from myself and add to the character, a few from the character and add to myself. I would definitely say that’s my process for getting into Jaq. One of my things was how I was going to be able to separate myself from my character because it’s one thing becoming my character, but you don’t want to bring that person home with you. I noticed I’d be in my trailer and, every day, getting out my costume, every layer of clothing I took off was a little piece of Jaq I was putting back. Every piece of clothing that was my own was a little piece of myself I was getting back to go back home with. That is my process.

Jasmine Jobson joined the Top Boy season three cast as Jaq

Aneil Karia, who directed the final three episodes of S3 after the first seven had been filmed, was a fan of the original series and was excited to join the show…
Karia: Obviously there’s a certain amount of pressure in finishing off a series that’s come so far like that, but it’s a bunch of wonderful people. And by the time I was coming on set to start on episode eight, it was already feeling like I was part of a family, as trite as that sounds. It does feel like that on that show.
It was tough. Everyone started off Top Boy in sun-drenched July in London and, seven months later, it was -6°C and I came on board and everyone was slightly fed up. For those guys, it was the final slog, and for me it was the beginning. So that was an interesting one, but it was a fantastic experience.

At the heart of the show is a universal story to which audiences around the world can relate…
Karia: There’s escapism television that takes you elsewhere, away from the heaviness of the planet right now, and then there’s something at the other end of the scale that speaks to exactly what this world is becoming, what it is for better or worse. The most exciting opportunities are saying something about what is a hugely problematic system that we all live in. It was a privilege to be able to work on something so relevant with such a voice. Struggle is pretty universal, I suppose. I’m not surprised it has that kind of global appeal.

Top Boy stars Kano (left) and Ashley Walters

The diversity of Top Boy’s cast was one of Karia’s favourite aspects of the series…
Karia: Trained actors, actors who didn’t have training but have been in the game a long time, musicians who were acting for the first time, street-cast people – that mix brought such a unique energy to the whole production, and I loved working with a cast who came to their roles with such varied approaches.
Everyone has a different approach. Ashley is a machine. He fires it and can give you 12 different versions like that. With Kano, it’s about in-depth conversation about backstory. With Jasmine, it’s a whole other approach. Everyone is a total individual, and learning about how you best work with each person is the magical part of the journey.
Everyone knew when it was flowing well, and I guess there must be some link there to the number of people who were involved in music as well as acting. I can’t help but think that brought something really special.

Bennett never thought about becoming a writer…
Bennett: The first things I started to write were pieces of memory and things that were important to me. Eventually, that turned into a novel. After the novel was published, I was contacted by an exec producer at the BBC who had read the book and asked if I’d like to write a film, and I said ‘sure!’ I had an idea for one, and the film [1997’s Face, starring Robert Carlyle and Ray Winstone] was made. It was a hit, and that was it.
One of the things I think you find in this business is one successful show can really help you. People will be interested in you if you do something. That was it for me.

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Over the Years

Russell T Davies, the creator and writer of series including Queer as Folk and Years & Years, opens up about his career, being a showrunner and writing about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

With a career spanning more than 30 years, Russell T Davies is one of Britain’s leading television writers. Having started working on children’s series and soap operas, he rose to prominence as the man behind Channel 4’s groundbreaking Queer as Folk in 1999 and has gone on to create dramas such as Bob & Rose, Casanova, Torchwood, Cucumber and Years & Years, as well as overseeing the 2005 revival of the BBC’s iconic sci-fi series Doctor Who.

During the digital edition of French television festival Série Series, Welsh-born Davies spoke about the resonance of dystopian drama Years & Years (pictured above), creating a voice for gay characters and his upcoming Channel 4 series Boys, which follows a group of friends through the 1980s AIDS crisis.

Russell T Davies

Davies looks for stories set in worlds where no one has ever been…
I could write a cop show or a detective show, but I’d rather write stuff that is off the beaten track or stuff other people don’t do. Part of Years & Years is me thinking there’s such a disconnect between real life and drama. Surely drama should be about real life. Theatre can turn around [stories] quite quickly but film and television is very slow. Three years could have passed. There’s just a gap between it and the world, and I wanted to close that gap. We should all be sitting up. Although Years & Years was set in the future, it was a metaphor for now.

Davies began his career working with people who would go on to become some the UK’s biggest drama writers…
I worked at Granada Television, a powerhouse of drama and popular drama. Paul Abbott, who invented State of Play, very much looked after me. Kay Mellor [Fat Friends] looked after me as well, and Tony Wood [The Only Way is Essex]. They were colleagues, but I was so lucky. It was the 90s and Granada was very inventive. They were more free with money, so they could invent.
I was trained in soap operas, and one of my favourite jobs was as a storyliner on soap operas. There are all sorts of faults with soaps, but the one thing it teaches you is to never run out of story. I have carried that through my training ever since. You can’t give up, you can’t be short of story. It was great training.

Davies took the title of showrunner for the first time when he was approach to handle the resurrection of Doctor Who…
I didn’t run an American system. I lived in the US for a few years and watched people working there. What we think of as the American [writers] room isn’t always the case – shows are run however the showrunner wants to run them. [Current Doctor Who showrunner] Chris Chibnall now has a room, but I did all the long-term arcs and then brought in individual writers and had one-to-one meetings with them, which I still prefer.
I ran a room when we took [Doctor Who spin-off] Torchwood to America, but they might be some of my weaker scripts. I don’t think the room suits me in particular. I’ve reached a stage where I just like to do my own thing.

Billie Piper and Christopher Eccleston took the lead when Doctor Who returned to TV in 2005

Queer as Folk, about three gay men living in Manchester, was a story that had been growing in Davies for as long as he had been a writer…
Working on soap operas, I always put a gay character in, which makes me sound very militant, right-on and dedicated to the cause, which I am, but it was entirely natural to me. I was working in a company that was very accepting. I’ve never come across a commissioner who had doubts about including gay or trans characters. It’s a very liberal, forward-thinking industry.
If you looked at [my career from] 1990 to 2000, it’s a string of soap operas and me writing children’s programmes with certain characters ‘coded,’ where you would look at one woman and say, ‘She’s a lesbian character.’ She doesn’t say so, it’s me talking code. I came to soap operas and I invented a lesbian vicar, a gay schoolboy coming out and a marriage in which the groom was bisexual and having an affair with his best man. If you study that, you see the development of my work.

But before Queer as Folk, Davies created a hotel-set drama called The Grand…
It was like Downton Abbey, but it really wasn’t working. I invented it but it was foisted on my shoulders. Every week the ratings went down. Towards the end, I wrote what I wanted to and made one of the characters gay, a working-class man in the 1920s played by Paul Warriner. The standard of my writing went up and suddenly I wrote well. That episode was markedly better than anything else I’d ever written because I’d written from my heart. That was seen by Channel 4 and that led directly to Queer as Folk.
If I was inventing my life story, I would say I was dying to write Queer as Folk but the establishment wouldn’t allow it, and it took me 20 years to get on screen. But back then, in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, there were no gay dramas; I didn’t think I could do a gay drama because it didn’t exist. Once they said it, the doors were open, and it’s been my life ever since.

Davies came to prominence with Channel 4 drama series Queer as Folk

If Davies has an approach to storytelling, it is to see extraordinary things from an ordinary person’s perspective…
I could never have written The West Wing but, if had written it, I can guarantee you the story would have taken place among the secretaries and staff, in the canteen. It would have been them observing the machinations of power while the president strides past. I’m not the sort of writer who writes, ‘The president walks into the room.’ In The Grand, the heart of the show was downstairs among the staff.
With Doctor Who, my greatest invention was probably Rose Tyler [played by Billie Piper], the ordinary woman from an ordinary council estate with a funny mum, who lived the most ordinary life on Earth but realised her life wasn’t ordinary.
Years & Years is an ordinary Manchester family, as we all are – just pawns of huge events happening around us and yet realising we’re not pawns, we’re the ones with the vote, we’re the ones who made it happen, we’re the ones who like our comfy evenings with tea, the curtains closed and being comfortable at the expense of the greater picture sometimes.
It’s an approach that works for me. That’s just my instinctive path into a story. Maybe I should do something else! All writers talk about finding their voice, but I do think writers get stuck in their voice as well. They develop their own schtick. You need to be aware of that too.

Davies describes Cucumber as a ‘very tough piece of work’

Davies loves calling his work ‘gay drama…’
I have no problem being called a gay writer; I love it. I’m immensely proud of it. I started with The Grand with gay men in the 1920s, I did A Very English Scandal covering the 1950s, 60s and 70s. My next series is Boys in the 80s, Queer as Folk was in the 90s, Cucumber was in the 2010s and Years & Years took gay men forward to 2030. I’ve covered a whole century, I’m delighted!
The only way I can write is to be honest. When it comes to gayness, you find yourself in some uncomfortable areas. All dramas are about the problems and the conflicts, so that’s where I go.
Something like Cucumber, it wasn’t particularly successful. It was well regarded and won awards, but it didn’t get a great audience because it was a very tough piece of work. It was a very risky series that only said what it was about after eight hours in its very last line. It’s true, it’s honest and it’s right, and I’m proud of it on those terms. You might not like it, you might not like the story, you might not agree with it, but you can’t deny that it’s true. That’s the direction I head in.
Years & Years spent six months not being commissioned because the original scripts were a lot tougher on that family, on every single character. Everyone was a bit more selfish. In fairness to the BBC, they said, ‘This is hard and the drama is hard, the passage of time is hard. Can’t you warm up the family for us to have something good to cling to?’ And they were right. I’d been so focused on my idea of truth, I’d forgotten to welcome people in.

Davies with the main cast of The Boys, which includes Olly Alexander (second from left), lead singer of pop band Years & Years (unconnected to Davies’ BBC series)

He would hate to be a young writer, starting out in the age of social media…
I knew back in 1990, when I wrote my first character, that when you put a gay character on screen, people will complain. Gay people will complain, never mind straight people. I know full well gay people complain, partly because I’m that person as well. We’re so starved of our own representation – and it’s the case with lesbian and trans characters – that if the representation on screen isn’t absolutely us, we object.
Straight people have 2,000 years of experience ahead of us here. They’re used to translating experiences and can recognise any character is going through what they would go through in those circumstances. But you could have a gay teacher [on screen] who’s exactly like someone and he wouldn’t recognise himself. That’s also the truth. It’s hard to see yourself, and I’ve done that. I’ve done living representations of people cast with absolute accuracy and I have sat and watched the real-life person watching say, ‘That’s ridiculous.’
You cannot win, and because you can’t win, just go ahead and write whatever you want to write – the hard work then is making it honest, truthful, real, imaginative and watchable.
I would hate to be starting now as a young writer with Twitter. You have 100,000 voices swarming like bees ready to tell you you’re wrong, and they especially attack women and writers of colour. To be 18 or 21 starting your scripts now means you have to be made of steel. Writers are made of steel; I don’t want to put people off. No matter how insecure, whimsical and scared they are, if they are writing, they’re made of steel. But to be starting out now, that is hard.

Davies’ next series, Boys, fits his own life…
Why didn’t I write this first? It’s just about a group of friends in London in 1981, in the decade in which AIDS appears, so it’s their lives being lived as this increasing danger gets closer and closer towards them. I was 18 in 1981; it fits my life. I didn’t have to do much research about what music we were listening to, because I was there. I did it all and I felt that stuff. It needed all these years for me to come round to look at something as devastating as the AIDS epidemic.
I wonder what I would have written 20 years ago or 30 years ago. Maybe it would have been better. I am glad I’m this sort of writer now. I’m glad I had the maturity to look at it, but I’ll always wonder what it would have been like if I’d written it in 1990.

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Normal procedure

Airing to great acclaim earlier this year on the BBC in the UK and US streamer Hulu, Normal People told the tender love story of Connell and Marianne as their relationship moved from high school in the west of Ireland to Dublin’s Trinity College.

In this DQTV interview, executive producers Lenny Abrahamson, who also directs, and Ed Guiney discuss the starting point for their adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel and how they landed on the idea to turn it into 12 half-hour episodes.

They also discuss the long process to cast the central couple, with Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones eventually landing the parts, and how this story set specifically in contemporary Ireland resonates with audiences around the world.

Normal People is produced by Element Pictures for the BBC and Hulu, and distributed by Endeavor Content.

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Wolf at the door

Writer and director Denis Karyshev introduces Russian drama Wolf Trap, in which a gangster seeks revenge for his parents’ death by taking on the crime bosses now running his hometown.

A violent gangster looks to change his ways and protect his hometown from a new wave of criminals in pulsating action thriller Wolf Trap, which comes from Russian broadcaster NTV.

Produced by KIT Film Studio and distributed by NTV, the 16-part series begins when notorious gangster Artyom Volkov (Wolf) fakes his own death and retires overseas under a new identity.

When his parents die in a car accident 20 years later, he secretly returns to his hometown. There he discovers that a local mobster’s nephew was responsible for his parents’ death. In the subsequent battle between Wolf and local crime bosses, it becomes clear that for him to survive, Wolf must take back his town from criminals.

The series is directed by Denis Karyshev and Vyacheslav Kirillov, who also write alongside Rodion Beletsky, Alexander Turbin, Anna Grafkova and Valeria Podorozhnova. The producers are Janik Faysiev and Rafael Minasbekyan.

The only Russian project to be featured at this year’s MipTV Drama Buyer’s Summit, Wolf Trap was recently showcased during Roskino’s Key Buyers Event, the first Russian virtual content market, which brought together Russian producers with buyers from around the world.

Here, Karyshev introduces the series and talks about his showrunning role, the constant time pressures he faced in production and battling with zombies.

Wolf Trap writer and director Denis Karyshev gets comfortable on set

How would you describe the story of Wolf Trap?
Back in the 1990s, Artyom Volkov used to be a mob boss with lots of enemies. There was an assassination attempt on him. Everyone thought he was dead, and he was even officially buried, but in reality the coffin they put in the ground was empty. Artyom faked his death to throw his enemies off his trail.
With a new name and a new face, he started from scratch in Sweden, where it was quiet and safe. But 20 years later, the unexpected death of his parents forces him to resurface. He goes back to the city of his birth for the funeral and finds himself in the middle of a gang war. He realises he can’t erase his past mistakes, but he can try to change something in the present. So he stays home to protect his sister from the danger that looms over her and take on an entire crime syndicate all by himself.

Does Russia have a history of mob dramas? How does Wolf Trap fit into the genre?
Twenty-five years ago, you could watch a mob drama if you just looked out of your window. The 1990s are enshrined in modern Russian history as the years when crime ran rampant. Of course, our movies reflected that. On the one hand, Wolf Trap builds on the Russian crime drama tradition, which includes shows like Brother and The Law of the Lawless.
On the other hand, we’ve had no choice but to draw from modern foreign shows such as Banshee, Peaky Blinders and The Punisher. The main difference between these two traditions is that the Russian audience is not in any way partial to a comic book style of show. Any attempt to introduce larger-than-life events or characters is going to make them feel mistrustful. Our audience is used to the criminal dramas that go on right outside their windows.

What are the origins of the project and how was it developed?
I told the story to Timur Weinstein, NTV’s general producer, and he liked it. Then Aleksandr Ustyugov, who plays Wolf, came on board. You can’t really think of another Russian actor that would be better in the part. Beside the fact that he’s a star, he’s also perfect for the character we imagined. After that, nothing could stop the train.

The crime drama stars Aleksandr Ustyugov as Wolf

How would you describe the writing process?
We were working on the script according to the generally established method. I was the showrunner and the leading scriptwriter. I was responsible for the main storyline, i.e. I was the person who OK’d – or didn’t – major plot developments that other writers suggested. That was how we wrote 16 episodes of the first season together.

What were the themes you wanted to discuss through the story?
I wanted to make a gritty, brutal and realistic fairy tale for grown-ups. I think we achieved that.

What were the advantages of you and fellow director Vyacheslav Kirillov being among the writers? 
I wouldn’t say it was exactly an advantage. When I invited Vyacheslav Kirillov to write our screenplay, I already knew he was one of the show’s directors. So, before writing something down, he had to imagine that thing and test it in his head from a cinematic point of view. That definitely made the literary screenplay closer to the reality of film production. If all screenwriters had little directors inside them, that would be perfect.

Where was Wolf Trap filmed and how are locations used in the series?
Aninsk is a made-up city. It’s our version of Gotham City, reminiscent of multiple real Russian cities. If you observe the comings and goings there, you would be able to imagine life in some far-out Russian cities. Aninsk is a composite image. We shot in Moscow and five other cities.

What were the biggest challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?
The main challenge of Russian showrunning is the race against time. You’re terminally out of time, especially when it comes to action, stunts and car chases. It’s like we were always looking at the stopwatch. You could say we were working as a Formula One pit stop crew.

A second season of the series is now in the works

What were the most memorable scenes to film and why?
That was our last production day. We went to the location, but there was already another crew there. It was a public space, so we were all on equal footing. We had to make it work by communicating. We had to shoot all day by taking turns. One director would signal action and, for that time, the other crew had to keep completely still. Then the other crew would start shooting. To an outside observer, that all looked weird. There was a love scene that we were shooting while, 60 feet away, the other team was doing a violent zombie fight. I will never forget that.

What should viewers expect from watching the series?
I would love to make the audience empathise with our characters. We made a show with a lot of emotions and it would be great to share them from the screen. I think every movie is, in the end, about love. Wolf Trap definitely is.

Why might Wolf Trap appeal to international audiences?
The genre shows are the most universal ones. People living on different continents are able to understand them without much difficulty. On the one hand, Wolf Trap is a crime drama made according to all the genre conventions; on the other, it’s full of uniquely Russian things. That combination of familiar form and exotic content would be very attractive to international audiences.

How is Russian drama evolving at home and overseas?
Until recently, the movie industry in Russia was mostly domestically oriented. That’s now starting to gradually change. The producers want their products to be interesting not only to the domestic audiences but to the foreign ones. I’m all for that. I think I’m making shows that foreign viewers can understand and relate to.

What are you working on next?
At the moment, I have my next show, Hitman, in pre-production. It’s a story about a hitman who loses his memory in a car crash. I’m also already writing screenplays for the second season of Wolf Trap. The first season was aired to a lot of success and generated a lot of interest internationally. It was the only show from Russia listed at the prestigious MipTV Drama Buyers Summit programme.

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Picking parts

Swedish actor Sofia Helin discusses choosing characters, preparing for a role and playing a princess in Norwegian drama Atlantic Crossing.

For viewers around the world, Swedish star Sofia Helin has become synonymous with Nordic noir, thanks to her leading role in acclaimed crime drama Bron/Broen (The Bridge). More recently, she has been seen on screen down under with a starring role in the second season of Mystery Road, while she will soon be playing royalty in Norwegian period drama Atlantic Crossing.

During the digital edition of French television festival Série Series, Helin spoke about her acting career, how she chooses her next character and her real-life role in Sweden’s #MeToo movement.

Helin has worked on stage and screen but, at the beginning of her career, she was just happy to be working…
Then I was lucky enough to have interesting parts early on. I choose a part if it awakens a question within me about their struggle or their motivation for doing what they’re doing. I always need to have those questions inside me to be able to do a part.

The role of Swedish cop Saga Norén in Danish/Swedish coproduction The Bridge has had a big influence on the actor…
Saga is a part I played for such a long time. She’s very different person from who I am, and the way she thinks is so different from my way of being and thinking. I’ve learned a lot from her and she’s shaped me more than I knew she would, but in a good way. I’m very grateful to her.

Sofia Helin as Saga Norén in The Bridge

Saying ‘yes’ to a script is not a rational decision…
It’s a feeling of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in my body and, of course, if I’m curious to work with a director or writer. It depends, but I know what makes me say no. I got a script from a very big show where there was a description of a woman going to a very fancy bar and seducing someone in a very sexy way. But the way the script was written didn’t describe the whole person. It described a vision of a person. I just thought that was not for me. I can’t do it, I don’t know how to. If it’s not written as a whole human being, I can’t do it.

The difference between theatre and film or TV is the rehearsal time…
With theatre, you rehearse. In Sweden we rehearse for eight weeks. On screen, sometimes you have time to dive into the part, but to understand a character or go into her world, it’s the same process but in another order. With theatre, you have so much more time to explore, and you have to build the character and a stage performance that can be played night after night. You have to make solid choices. When you shoot [for TV or film], you can shoot five different versions and experiment on set, but you still know that day that you have to deliver exactly the right take for the film or the series.

Playing royalty in Atlantic Crossing proved to be an unexpected challenge…
I just did a very long shoot playing Crown Princess Märtha of Norway, who travelled to America and was working together with President Roosevelt during the Second World War to make America join the war and help Europe. I didn’t expect it, but it became one of the hardest parts I’ve done because the more I learned about her, I realised she could perform [a role as] the perfect woman of that time. I didn’t expect it to be such a challenge to be in [that character] for so many months. I find it quite fascinating – royals live with a royal facade, but how and when does this crack?

In Atlantic Crossing, Helin plays Crown Princess Märtha of Norway

As an actor, Helin enjoys collaborating with directors and writers…
I’m an actress who loves to rehearse, meet, talk, analyse and get to know [the people I’m working with] to get rid of all limits and shyness and to be able to do the nearest portrayal of a woman you can achieve. You don’t hire me just to tell me what to do – I’m involved, I will discuss, ask questions. I like that, I can’t help it. I like to be involved as early as possible. If it’s a play, it’s different. It depends how much work has been done on the script.
With Atlantic Crossing, I joined while the script was being written so I could discuss it and have opinions and try to shape it. They were very open and we had many discussions about the script. With Bron, I had a wonderful cooperation with writer Hans Rosenfeldt. Over the seasons, we started working together to see where we wanted Saga to go. It was a lot of fun. We both knew Saga so well, so it was easy and fun to work on that together.
What I’m good at is taking a scene and helping out if I’m in the part. The part can speak through me. If a writer and director are open to that, I’m very happy to take part.

Working in television, Helin also watches a lot of TV…
I watch a lot. I just finished Normal People and it broke my heart. It was so beautiful, the way the camera worked with the actors and the actors worked with the camera and each other, and everything they never said. I loved that series. It was so beautiful, painful. I watch a lot because it’s my passion and my business. Sometimes I research by watching and sometimes I get drawn into things. It’s harder for me to get engaged because I’m probably watching in a different way.

There’s so much television being made around the world, but stories should have something to say…
Everybody wants and needs more TV series and content. It’s such an explosion but, still, there are both very good and very bad things. The challenge is whether to keep on making a series just because it’s a success. You have to take responsibility for the story and take responsibility for the audience. Do you have something to tell, or are you just continuing because [you can]? That’s the way I want to work. I want to work as long as I have a story to tell. Otherwise there’s no point in just going on.
We’re living in a fantastic time where so much is possible technically and resources are so big and the audiences are so huge. Especially as a woman of my age, the timing is brilliant because I feel the urge for new stories about women, about older women. I’m very grateful to live in this time. I want to be part of projects that include the female audience and include all women and all people. That’s what’s happening in the world right now.

The Swedish actor in season two of Australian drama Mystery Road

Helin was at the forefront of Sweden’s #MeToo movement, known as #Tystnadtagning, but doesn’t know how long its impact will last…
We had a very hard backlash in Sweden because of the way we did it. We shaped our #MeToo movement to not have to deal with the press or give families pain when their fathers, brothers or sons are in the newspapers. I don’t know what’s good about hanging out a bunch of men who have behaved badly. There’s no point, we figured, so we did it more structurally to tell our stories anonymously. We thought it was brilliant, and it was brilliant because it spread and we had calls from lawyers, sex workers, opera singers, doctors. Everyone joined, it was huge.
But in the end, what I now see is, even though we recommended who to hire or who to speak to before you hire them, I see that actually many people don’t give a shit as long as they can earn money. We put in so much effort and time to do it in a very broad, nice and dignified way. I don’t know if the result is good or not. I don’t know what to do with these stories. It’s a complex answer to a complex situation. It’s changed, but I don’t know how much.

Working in Australia with co-star Aaron Pedersen on Mystery Road 2 was a “fantastic experience…”
It’s a show I admire and the people who worked on that show are fantastic. Aaron Pedersen is one of the world’s greatest actors, he’s very good. That was a very challenging, interesting project to join. Now I’m negotiating over several new projects. I’ll say yes to what I want to do and we’ll see what happens.

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Revisiting Downton

In 2009, period drama was dead – or so it appeared until Downton Abbey was commissioned by ITV and subsequently aired to acclaim the following year. Going on to run for six seasons, Downton eventually culminated in a feature film that was released last year.

The drama followed the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family upstairs and their servants downstairs between 1912 and 1926, with an ensemble cast including Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Michelle Dockery, Laura Carmichael, Jessica Brown Findlay, Jim Carter, Phyllis Logan, Lesley Nichol and Sophie McShera.

In this DQTV interview, creator and writer Julian Fellowes and executive producer Gareth Neame revisit the origins of the series, revealing the faith ITV put in the series at a time when period dramas were out of fashion.

They also recall how the series was developed and discuss Fellowes’ approach to writing for his actors, their opposing thoughts on making a movie and why Downton has fascinated audiences around the world.

Downton Abbey was produced by Carnival Films for ITV and Masterpiece on PBS, and distributed by NBCUniversal International Distribution.

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