With a second season of Belgian series Beau Séjour on air and a UK remake on the way, DQ speaks to the writers and director of this supernatural crime drama, which follows a murder victim who leads the hunt for their own killer from beyond the grave.
In the Belgian municipality of Dilsen-Stokkem, in the far east of the country close to its border with the Netherlands, with Germany not far beyond that, Hotel Beau Séjour offers waterside views in lush green surroundings. The venue also lends its name to a 2017 supernatural crime drama in which a young girl, Kato, awakes to find her own dead body lying in the bath, leading her to set out on the hunt for her murderer.
The real hotel features in the first season of the Beau Séjour series, which returned for a second season on broadcaster Éen earlier this year. In fact, it was director Nathalie Basteyns who was the catalyst for the show’s setting after she fell in love with the hotel when she stayed there with her father. She later introduced it to screenwriting duo Bert Van Dael and Sanne Nuyens, who came up with the show’s high-concept story.
At the Hotel Beau Séjour, Kato wakes up covered in blood and without any recollection of what happened to her the night before. As she realises that no one else can see or hear her, she must come to terms with her own death. But dying isn’t a straightforward act for Kato, who is left to uncover the truth of what happened to her with the help of five people – ‘seers’ – who can still interact with her. Their discoveries reveal a host of secrets lying under the surface of their supposedly peaceful town.
“It started with my father, who took me to the hotel, and then I took Kaat [Beels, co-director] and then Sanne and Bert and they made a story about it,” Basteyns tells DQ. “They went for a week just to see what it’s like there.”
The idea for the story came quickly, with Van Dael and Nuyens focusing on the death of a young girl and then coming up with the twist of having her investigate her own murder.
“I remember when we first pitched it and Nathalie was like, ‘What?’ And then she read the story and was like, ‘Wow!’” Nuyens recalls. Basteyns has a similar recollection: “At first it was like, ‘What the fuck?’”
“The first pitch we had was about a girl who investigates her own murder and there are five people who can see her,” says Van Dael. “It was hard to work out what other people see. How does it work? At the beginning, the rules were very tricky. But early on, Nathalie and Kaat did a short clip that we filmed in the hotel [to present to funding agencies], which helped explain the world.
“When you read it on paper, we thought people would think it wouldn’t work. But when you watched the clip, it was very obvious it wasn’t complex at all.”
The ‘rules’ that needed figuring out included determining which five people would be able to see and interact with Kato and working out how she could move about among other people who couldn’t see her. Kato could also open doors and pick up objects – and ride a motorbike as she followed the federal officers investigating her case – but no one else would see those movements.
“There’s a certain suspension of disbelief but what was important was what Kato feels and the path she takes,” Van Dael explains. “We wanted to let viewers know how it is different for the ‘seers,’ but we wanted to tell the story mostly from the point of view of Kato and not to get too distracted with the rules. They’re important, but we set it up in episode one and then you just have to go along with it.”
The writing process started with the characters and involved early brainstorm sessions to define Kato (played by Lynn Van Royen) and those populating the world around her.
“We were interested in doing a stepfamily, so that was important for us,” Van Dael says. “We immediately found those five characters who can see her and we went from there. Because we’re not from the countryside [where the show is set], we went there to study the types of characters who live there. We didn’t really know who or what they could be – there’s a cop, of course – but we found this fruit shop and grocery store, so we tried to use those things with the characters.”
In the original script, part of the story also involved a local football club, but the sport was subsequently changed to motorcycling after the writers discovered how popular it is in Limburg, the province where the series is set. “We originally pitched it as football and then when we visited, we were like, ‘Fuck it, motorcycling is so much cooler,’” Van Dael notes.
Van Dael and Nuyens have built a formidable writing partnership together, having also written courtroom drama De Twaalf (The Twelve). On both shows they began by brainstorming ideas and carrying out research before sitting down together “for a really long time” and outlining the story. Then when they began to write the scripts, they would rewrite and edit each other’s work, rather than split the episodes between them.
On Beau Séjour, which comes from Flemish producer DeMensen and is known internationally as Hotel Beau Séjour, “the biggest problem in the beginning, which took us in completely the wrong direction, was that the main character could only interact with five people,” Nuyens says, “so if she had to know any information, it had to come through those five. It was really hard to write a dynamic, proactive main character because she’s always watching people.”
Behind the camera, long-time directing partners Basteyns and Beels (Jes, Clan) created a dark, murky landscape against which to set this otherworldly story. “We wanted to go in close to the characters because we were in the head of the one person,” Basteyns notes. “Kato’s in practically every scene.”
Four years passed between season one and season two, which tells a new story set in the port resort of Zeebrugge. This time, former naval officer Maurice (Gene Bervoets) sees his own lifeless body dangling from the mast of a sailboat – called Beau Séjour. Then when he wakes up on the beach hours later, nobody can see or hear him. With his three daughters and ex-wife seemingly glad to be rid of him, Maurice starts to investigate his own death and discovers there are people who can still see him and talk to him.
The strength of the show’s format ensured the seamless transformation of the series into an anthology, with viewers following a new main character who must uncover the circumstances surrounding their own death with the help of five ‘seers.’ Van Dael and Roel Mondelaers (Cub) developed the story, with Nuyens and Mondelaers partnering to write the scripts. Basteyns and Beels returned to direct.
“We didn’t plan a second season and Sanne and I also did The Twelve in the meantime,” Van Dael says. “When we were editing the first season, we felt like the main character, a young girl, hadn’t done anything in her life yet. It was great to use that point of view, but I thought it would be cool to have somebody older [in season two] with a lot of baggage so we could find out what happens when he dies. In your afterlife, how does that baggage unfold?
“It wasn’t envisioned but we thought it was so much more interesting to have a main character who had more baggage. I’m not mostly a fan of second seasons, but here we could add much more to the story. But it’s an anthology, with different characters and a whole different feel.”
Nuyens says: “It’s a little bit more complex but the main question of who kills the person who dies in episode one is the same. We also have the seers, but it becomes more complicated. Season two is also less of a whodunnit – it becomes more of a family drama because there are so many complex family ties and so much backstory.”
The story’s coastal setting does add a new element to the show, as does the introduction of the local police force, as opposed to the federal officers in season one, and the involvement of the Belgian Navy in supporting the production.
“We went on the boats with the marines, got seasick and it was a lot of fun,” Nuyens says. “It’s a very closed area; they don’t let a lot of people into the place they work, so we were very lucky to be there and see how they work and the way they are. They also helped in the visualisation of the story, as they lent us some boats.”
One of the changes the writers made for season two was to make the central character a more active figure in the story, while the ‘seers’ are all members of Maurice’s family.
“What’s also very different is the use of flashbacks,” Van Dael says. “We didn’t use them in the first season, and now we switch between seven years ago and the present. It’s very intuitive and it adds another layer to show how life was before he died and what it was like after he died.”
Season one has aired internationally on Netflix and in the UK on Walter Presents. Meanwhile, following S2’s debut in Belgium in January, Sky announced in April that it was remaking Beau Séjour as English-language supernatural crime drama The Rising, which will be set in the Lake District. It follows Neve Kelly (Clara Rugaard), who discovers she has been murdered and is determined to find her killer, believing it to be someone she knew.
The show, the first to be fully produced in-house by Sky Studios, is helmed by lead director Ed Lilly (Industry) alongside Thora Hilmarsdottir (Stella Blomkvist). Pete McTighe and Charlotte Wolf (The Last Kingdom) lead a writing team that also includes Charlene James (A Discovery of Witches), Roanne Bardsley (Free Rein),Gemma Hurley (Host) and Laura Grace (Das Boot).
For the writers of the original series, it’s a privilege to see Beau Séjour remade for a new audience, with no current plans for a third season of the original. “It’s an honour because we made something so great that they want to make a remake of it. I’m curious,” says Nuyens. “It’s a high-concept pitch that could attract people but it’s also an emotional story and the characters are really important. Kato is someone you can relate to because it could happen to anyone. For a screenwriter, it will be very interesting to see what they change and what they don’t change.”