Good to be bad
The creators of Belgian dark comedy Des Gens Bien (Good People) reveal how their follow-up to crime drama La Trêve (The Break) blends thriller and comedy as a couple’s insurance scam spirals out of control.
In Belgium crime drama La Trêve, a police officer dealing with personal tragedy starts to investigate the mysterious death of a young footballer that threatens to reveal secrets hidden in a small town.
Now, the creatives behind that series – Stéphane Bergmans, Benjamin d’Aoust and Matthieu Donck – have turned their attention to events in another tight-knit community, where good people end up doing bad things despite their best intentions.
The six-part series, called Des Gens Bien (Good People), follows 30-something couple Tom (Lucas Meister) and Linda (Bérangère McNeese), a policeman and a beautician respectively. They live in Belgium along the French border and are on the verge of bankruptcy, leading them to embark on a get-rich-quick life insurance scam in an attempt to give themselves a fresh start someplace sunny.
Initially, their plan goes pretty well, but things soon take a turn, leading them on a misadventure that also involves Serge (Peter Van den Begin), Linda’s out-of-control ex-con cousin; Philippe, a French gendarme with whom Linda had an affair (Michael Abiteboul), and his partner Stéphane (India Hair); Joseph (Nicolas Buysse), a cop who is waiting for the case that will help his career finally take off; Cathy (Lucile Vignolles), an insurance broker who wants to investigate no matter what; and Corinne (Gwen Berrou), Tom’s pious and very awkward sister.
Set in a border town, Good People also explores what life is like for those living literally at the end of the railway line, in an often excluded and forgotten community.
After two seasons and 20 episodes of La Trêve, the creators were torn between writing a third season and coming up with a new idea, eventually deciding to “change the dynamic” from their previous series.
“La Trêve is a whodunnit. The viewers were wondering who did it, and in this show we show everything in the beginning and follow the characters wondering what is going to happen next,” says Donck. “One idea was to change the dynamic and try to do something else, so we also changed the team [behind the camera]. Some people stayed, but we tried to change the main artistic leaders to challenge ourselves a little.”
“Our main intention was to make something more comedic,” says Bergmans. “La Trêve had some comedic points but we wanted to go further with that with some magnificent losers – normal people you really like but they fuck everything up. We thought it would be nice to have a couple who end up in criminality and do it in a wrong and clumsy way. And we liked that this had repercussions for the whole town.”
Around the time the trio were developing the series, the gilet jaunes (yellow vests) protest movement was building its second movement in France – a topical event that played into the themes of a series set in a border town where people can feel forgotten by the establishment.
“A forgotten place and forgotten people, that was the first idea,” says Donck. “Also, because this story happens at the edge of Belgium, which is also the edge of France, there is not much there. It’s a region we know well because we went there to write La Trêve, so we could meet people and observe things happening there.
“From La Trêve, we also took the idea of how to tell a thriller and mixed that with comedy to do this new show. My uncle is an expert in insurance and we met him several times to hear anecdotes we could put in the show.”
“Insurance experts are like private detectives,” adds Bergmans. “It’s really interesting because they have to prove something without any right to prove it, so they have to sneak in. That was also something that interested us.”
At the beginning, two key things the creative trio had to decide upon were just how desperate Tom and Linda should be and what kind of social status they should have. Taking another cue from the gilet jaunes movement, the creators decided that in order to be realistically motivated to attempt an insurance scam, the couple should be part of the ‘squeezed middle’ – people in work on average incomes but still finding themselves struggling to get by.
“That was important for us,” says Donck. “All those people, they’re not poor but they’re not rich either. When we started, we thought they should be in huge debt because that would be most interesting, but then we thought no, they should work as normal people, and that’s why we like the idea of good people who try to make it work. It’s something we talked about a lot. We really wanted them to be normal people who work a lot but never get what they see on TV.”
Their personal challenge is also reflected in the town around them. “In the series, when you cross the border, there’s a big billboard that says, ‘Welcome to the heart of Europe,’” Bergmans says. “It’s very old and dirty, and it’s like Europe is going to come to your town and help but Europe did nothing. Everything is closing down. This couple also have that feeling of injustice, which drives their scam.”
Good People is set in a small corner of Belgium where people speak French, and misunderstandings are a key part of the slapstick humour in the show, as friends and neighbours talk the same language but find they do not understand each other.
“Tom is a cop on the Belgian side and you have the gendarme on the French side, which is completely different. One is more military-based and the others are just policemen,” says Donck. “In Europe now, the [land] borders are abstract, but in some ways they’re very real. We make fun stories about it.”
Writing on the series began in January 2019, before the project was chosen for the coproduction pitch contest at the 2019 edition French television festival Series Mania, where the finished show also had its world premiere earlier this year. Good People is produced by Hélicotronc and Unité for Arte in France and Belgiums RTBF, with distributor Federation handling worldwide sales.
Like on La Trêve, Donck says he, Bergmans and d’Aoust “pretty much do everything together.” Donck is listed as the series director, but he notes all three writers are constantly on set during shooting and then together in post-production.
“I’m directing but we’re all on set and then editing together,” he says. “The three of us are there for the mixing and colour setting. It’s what we did with La Trêve and it was a good way to work. The three of us are directors and made films on our own at the beginning. Now that we have started to work together, it’s easier to be three than one person.”
“We write as a three, we shoot as a three,” Bergmans says. “Matthieu is directing, I look at continuity and Benjamin is the second camera operator. We have the three screenwriters and creators of the show on set full-time.”
Bergmans jokes that the trio “don’t write much” in the writers room. Instead, they talk all day, covering the walls of their office with Post-It notes covered in plot points or character observations. They also act out the scenes they are writing between them – “and if the others laugh, that’s a good thing,” he says. “Then we write it down and keep the idea.”
“We try to challenge ourselves,” Donck notes. “After that, we can write [the scripts] alone, and we can do that really fast. But the fun part of writing is being together, and the fun part of writing a TV show is there’s a lot of space with a lot of episodes to create.”
That the writers already have in mind which actors they hope to cast also helps them write dialogue and jokes that they can imagine will be funny when performed on set. “When we play the parts in our office where we write, we try to imitate these characters, so we try to have a funny script and then we try to keep it funny [through performance],” Bergmans says. “It’s not a big comedy; it’s really a mix of a thriller and absurd humour. We love the Coen Brothers.”
But no matter what kind of genre the series falls into, or the events that play out, it was always important that viewers would retain empathy for Tom and Linda while things spiral out of their control.
“The main thing we are hoping for is that people love the characters, laugh with them and love them even if they do horrible things, because they do more and more horrible things,” Donck says. “We hope people will laugh but there’s also a lot of love and [we hope they] enjoy the ride. It’s a hell of a story.”