Drama gets shorty
Petra Fried, executive producer of Cheaters, discusses how the shortform drama can help the medium go mainstream, before DQ speaks to the creatives behind three more bitesize series – Hacked, It’s Fine, I’m Fine, and Outlaw.
When it came, the end of Quibi was quick and without the fanfare that had greeted the arrival of the first streaming app dedicated to shortform content.
After a US$1.75bn spending spree, the service was online for just eight months, brought down by a combination of factors, from its hit-and-miss offerings and the launch of huge rivals – Disney+ for one – to the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, which rendered useless a service almost singularly designed for commuters to catch ‘quick bites’ of new shows on their way into the office.
But while the end of Quibi in December 2020 might have resigned shortform programming to the sidelines, the format is proving incredibly resilient. What once might have been an unloved route to building credits before moving on to ‘traditional’ half-hour and hourlong programming continues to draw attention at film and television festivals, while there is evidence that shortform is also breaking into the mainstream.
One example is Cheaters, which emerged from a slate of projects developed by producer Clerkenwell Films (The End of the F***ing World) and financier Anton long before Quibi came – and went.
“One of the things about The End of the F***ing World that people responded to was the bitesize length of the episodes – they were significantly shorter than the 30-minute slot – and it’s an undeniable truth that the shorter the episodes, the more likely people are to binge them,” says Petra Fried, executive producer and joint MD at Clerkenwell. She also held an ambition to push the format further than series that feature talking heads or go back and forth between a handful of characters in a single setting, like Marion & Geoff and State of the Union.
“Our feeling was there’s no reason why we shouldn’t make something as ambitious and with as high production values and a similar spend as we would for our other shows,” Fried says. “We started doing that, and then we had a whole slate of developments, of which Cheaters was the first.”
When Quibi arrived, “initially, we thought, ‘Great, more people are catching on,’” the exec admits. Its quick collapse meant Clerkenwell put its own shortform projects on the back burner, but the company continued to push forward with its plan to self-finance shows with partners Anton and BBC Studios and sell them to a broadcaster afterwards.
As it happened, the BBC stepped in to acquire Cheaters and launched the series – an 18-episode story told in 10-minute chunks – earlier this year. Written and created by Oliver Lyttelton (The Listener), it introduces Fola (Susan Wokoma) and Josh (Joshua McGuire), who share an unlikely, drunken one-night stand in an airport hotel following a chance meeting when their flight is cancelled. Concurring that their night of passion was a mistake, they agree to go their separate ways – only to find Fola and her husband Zack (Jack Fox) have recently bought the house opposite the flat Josh shares with girlfriend Esther (Callie Cooke).
“The very positive response from viewers has proven that people do really enjoy drama in short bites, as long as you give them something really satisfying,” Fried says. “My feeling is Cheaters is a really good advert for what you could do if you get this kind of show right.”
Getting it right, however, is no easy feat. Fried says writers need to “reset their brain” to think in 10-minute bits, rather than 30 or 60-minute running times. The story also needs to be suitably “hooky” to keep people watching, with very little character development possible in just one short episode.
“With Cheaters, the idea that two people who have a one-night stand in another country, make their way home and discover they live across the road from each other worked as a 10-minute hook,” she says. “Hopefully you then have enough time to develop the characters and add a bit more depth to really help with viewer engagement.”
The danger is that a shortform drama could become too reliant on cliffhangers at the end of each episode. “You have to balance quite how hooky you need to be,” the exec says. “If you have a hook every 10 minutes, it becomes predictable and stale. That’s one area we worked hard to get right. Humour is obviously always helpful in terms of wanting people to just enjoy themselves and come back for more.”
While working on Cheaters, Clerkenwell and the production team learned some unique lessons about making shortform drama, including the discovery that standard cast agreements designed for half-hour or hourlong episodes weren’t fit for purpose. The decision to budget the show as a six-part, 30-minute series also didn’t quite work.
“The truth is, with beginnings, middles and ends of episodes in 10 minutes, there was a far higher number of scenes than we had anticipated,” Fried says. “That was an eye-opener for us. We had to amend our expectations, budget and schedule accordingly.
“Then just in terms of story, you definitely have to have pack more in than you would in 10 minutes of an hour or a half-hour show. But it was never boring – it couldn’t afford to be. You have to hit the ground running and make sure a lot happens.”
Fried says she was “deeply impressed” that the BBC would take a punt on a shortform drama, evidence perhaps that broadcasters are loosening their grip on traditional scheduling in the age of streaming. The series was made available on streamer BBC iPlayer and also aired on BBC One. For territories that aren’t so keen on 10-minute shows, Cheaters has also been edited into half-hour tranches, which still work well dramatically but lose the original format’s distinctiveness.
Quibi’s failed experiment “set us all back,” Fried says of the streamer’s “laudable” attempt to bring shortform content in front of bigger audiences. “But the success of Cheaters has taken the shortform story one step further and shown there’s much more variety to be had in shortform than perhaps people imagined.”
Tackling themes of friendship and cyberbullying among the internet generation, Belgian series Hacked serves as a modern parable about privacy in the digital age.
Nilou, Malick and Adanne are best friends who share everything with each other. But when their smartphones are compromised, they find themselves at the mercy of a hacker who makes increasingly challenging demands in return for their privacy, leading the three friends to be confronted with their deepest fears and darkest secrets.
Consisting of 10 episodes that average 14 minutes apiece, the drama is produced by Dingle for Belgium’s Streamz and GoPlay and distributed by DFW International Sales. It is directed by Laura Van Haecke, who co-writes with Una Kreso. The cast is led by Alicia Andries, Misha Van Der Werf and Helena Tengan.
“We take our phones and privacy for granted but actually someone can, in one second, get all this information. It’s not that difficult, and that’s the wake-up call I wanted to give these youngsters,” Van Haecke says of the project, which was named Best Short Form Series at French television festival Canneseries earlier this year.
She was approached with the idea behind the series by the show’s producer, who proposed a story about three teenagers whose phones are hacked. She then developed the idea further, building on real-life details and heightening them for dramatic effect.
“They all get hacked and all have something to do with the hacker,” she says. “Then they get set challenges, and if they don’t manage to complete them, something on their phones will be spread. They have more information than you would think that they don’t want spread, so they are willing to go far [to stop it]. In the end, you realise we are very eager to protect our privacy on our phones but we don’t act like it.”
Kreso had previously worked as a script coach on Van Haecke’s short film Howling and they teamed up again to write Hacked, bouncing ideas off each other and taking it in turns to write new drafts of the scripts, at first together in person and then separately over Zoom after the pandemic took hold.
Filming then took place last summer, a year after the 21-day shoot was initially scheduled. The finished series blends traditional camerawork with footage recorded on mobile phones and skateboarding sequences, which all lend themselves to the director’s preference for a realistic visual style akin to a documentary.
“I like to have a camera on my shoulder and stay very close to the characters. Then you are able to almost jump into their skin, because those are the movies I like,” she says. “I love beautiful cinematography but, in the end, it can be very ugly if I don’t believe the character. Expressing feelings without saying too much is something I like.
“I wanted to have a realistic style, and I wanted to have mixed media with their phones. You don’t see this realistic style that much on TV in Belgium, so it was cool to be able to make something like this.”
Having previously directed short films, Van Haecke has now fallen for shortform episodic series that can be binged in the time it takes to watch a single feature length move. “I love it,” she says. “It’s something new and a lot of channels are still afraid – ‘What is this shortform? Is there an audience for this?’ – but I do think there is. This is the future. It’s true, it is difficult. You want to tell a lot of story but you have to cut out a lot of side stories.”
Returning to the central theme at the heart of Hacked, the director notes how freely people around the world were willing to hand over their personal information for the sake of a Covid vaccination passport, but would be horrified to let someone else scroll through their phone.
“Our privacy is still precious. Think twice before you do or say something,” she says. “That applies to everything in Hacked. Everyone makes mistakes, and we should learn from this and be conscious of what we are doing.”
IT’S FINE, I’M FINE
Magical realism blends with psychological drama in Australian series It’s Fine, I’m Fine, giving this show about a suburban therapist and her patients an unexpected but fantastical edge.
Created by director Stef Smith, the project – with 12 episodes between five and 10 minutes long – came from her desire to tell stories by working with a lot of different writers and actors, in a setting that wouldn’t require a Hollywood budget. “Therapy came to mind because I’ve had a lot of it,” she says. “It was strategic on my part.”
At the centre of the show is Joanne, played by Ana Maria Belo, who helps her patients explore the mess, humour, melancholy and unexpected magic of life. Characters played by actors including Chris Bunton (Felix) and Wendy Mocke (Betty) recur in several episodes, while the show confronts elements of hope, humility and the human condition via stories about unrequited love and mental health. Mocke’s episodes concern cultural taboos around therapy within the Black Pacific Island community, while another confronts a grieving man’s obsession with his dead partner’s laundry.
“One thing I love is watching other people, particularly when you see into a moment you’re not meant to see – and that is therapy,” Smith says. “A therapist cannot talk about the sessions, and often people don’t talk about what they disclose to their therapist, so when do you get to see behind those closed doors, that’s what’s happening in our show.”
Notably, Joanne appears to foster different relationships with each of her patients. “With Felix, it was very much like a brother-sister relationship,” says Belo. “At the top of each episode’s script, I would have, ‘You’re the older sister here, you’re the mother here…’ She’s brilliant – she’s got it all together for her clients, but not in her personal life. What you realise is all of the patients are actually a mirror of her.”
Uniquely, many of the cast also wrote on the series with Smith, including Belo, Bunton, and Mocke. Bunton, for example, created his character as well as the story Felix relays to Joanne about his friend and an ex-girlfriend during their sessions. The actor, who has Down’s syndrome, also wanted there to be authentic representation in his episodes and not just to explore issues connected to his disability.
“I wanted to show my personal experience and what it feels like to be betrayed by a friend,” he says. “As an advocate for people with disabilities, I would like to break down perceptions and assumptions about people with disabilities.”
Belo says writing on the show was “such a gift,” though one she jokingly describes as extra acting homework. “For myself – I’m deaf – and for Chris, it was a gift to be able to know we were writing stories where we didn’t have to go, ‘Look at our disability’ and it was actually just, ‘This is their job or this is what they do or this is what they’re going through.’”
Writers were told they could tell stories on any subject, before Smith started bringing certain parameters to the series, such as the fact that Joanne can’t see the elements of magical realism – a ghost sitting in the back of the therapy room or smoke rising from the floor – that feature in each story.
Smith then “shot the shit” out of the material, which was filmed in just eight days, running entire scenes with two cameras before changing perspectives and doing it again, with a focus on practical effects shot in camera to create those magical moments.
“I moved the camera as much as I possibly could, finding new angles, pushing the intimacy. That’s one thing about therapy – you can really get quite intimate with a person,” the director notes. “And then with magical realism, you can fuck things up a little bit. You can do weird wides where all of a sudden there are disco lights, or you can go with a high angle and it’s raining ash. There was liberation on the creative side of things, but some days we were shooting 17 pages of drama.”
Another episode takes place in Auslan (Australian sign language). Belo, who uses Auslan, was tasked with acting while using the language, which emphasises facial expressions that put hand signs into different contexts. “This was full on,” she says. “We knew it was the last day [when we filmed the episode] and we knew we were running over time. It was very emotional, the subject was emotional. There were a lot of feelings that day.”
Produced by Photoplay Films, the series had its world premiere at French TV festival Canneseries this year. Smith says her job was just to maintain a sense of connection between the audience and every story. “I just want them to care,” she adds. “That’s the point of the show. I want people to be moved or surprised or shocked.”
Inspired by true events, Danish shortform drama Fredløs (Outlaw) is a story about identity and alienation, and the consequences of not feeling recognised by society.
The eight-part drama, whose episodes run between 15 and 20 minutes, introduces Mohammed (Besir Zeciri), a man with a good job, a pregnant girlfriend and a bright future. But when he is arrested for armed robbery, his life is thrown into chaos.
Behind bars, Mo experiences racism and betrayal, and learns his girlfriend has aborted their baby after beginning to doubt his innocence. But he finds peace in Islam with the support of the prison chef, and when he is released eight months later, he becomes involved in an Islamic relief organisation providing emergency aid in Syria.
Produced by Strong Productions and Splay One for Denmark’s DR3, the project was already in development with writer Babak Vakili when co-writer Malthe Jagd Miehe-Renard joined the team.
“As it’s a story based on true events, we had a timeline from the beginning and had a lot of research to do before we started going into what the story should be dramatically and structurally. We took it from there from the first steps Babak had made,” Miehe-Renard says.
The writers conducted interviews with those familiar with the real events that led to the man on whom Mo is based heading to Syria in 2015, where he later died. But the creative team behind Fredøs didn’t want to focus on what happened after he arrived in war-torn Syria, but what sparked his decision to travel there in the first place.
Director Laurits Flensted-Jensen’s documentary background brings an authentic tone to the series, his first television project. Two child refugees from Syria were also cast to reflect Mo’s story and what he himself went through when he came to Denmark.
“We didn’t think the most interesting part was that he went to Syria, it was the things that happened that led him to want to go,” says Miehe-Renar. “It ends when he leaves Denmark. That’s the point of his life we know the least about, so we can’t go in and tell a story without it being completely fictional. That’s not something we wanted to do. We just end it when he leaves. We’re not sure what happened after that, just that he unfortunately passes away at some point.”
The tone of the series was particularly important for producer Siri Bøge Dynesen, who wanted to tell Mo’s story in a nuanced way.
“That’s’ why Laurits was the perfect choice [to direct],” she says. “The way he works with his characters, it’s very important to him that they’re nuanced characters and they’re not black and white. They’re people. He treats his characters with a lot of respect and love, and I thought that was the most important thing for the story. We wanted to tell a story people could see themselves in, and we were of course concerned it’s about a man who ends up where he ends up, and we wanted to tell this more positive story about this man.”
“It would have been very easy for us to make a radicalisation story, but we didn’t want to do that because we don’t know that’s what happened,” Miehe-Renard says. “His concrete intentions are unknown to everyone but him, but it doesn’t seem like he was ready to go to war. It seems like he wanted to help and do aid work. We also talked to a lot of people who have gone to Syria in real life to do aid work, so it’s not something that’s so crazy to do.”
Miehe-Renard and Vakili wrote the series “in complete symbiosis” with each other, working through every way they could conceivably tell the story, from characters and structure to the starting point and the ending. When Flensted-Jensen then joined the project, he injected some “much-needed energy” into the development process, bringing a fresh eye to the script and his own thoughts to how it might be filmed.
But there were two major concerns the creative team had – one was how to handle such a big story, and the other was its fragility. “You could easily walk in the wrong direction. We were eager to honour the story and the real people involved and take really good care of it,” Flensted-Jensen says. “In the end, we had to approach it like it was just fiction. When you’re building fictional characters, you always start with very little material and you add all the layers. That’s how we made it in the end.”
Though the weight of responsibility towards the real story sat heavily on their shoulders, they believe that pressure added something to the finished series, which is distributed by DR Sales and had its international premiere at French television festival Series Mania earlier this year.
“Even though we were doing it in shortform on a small budget, people gave something more to that process because they felt that responsibility to the events and the people involved,” the director adds. “We had to take really good care of the story and, in the end, that gave it something more than when you have a high budget or a lot of resources. It really adds something.”