Swiss graphic novel Les Indociles (The Firebrands) is translated for television in a five-part drama about a group of friends in the midst of a new drug culture in the 1970s and 80s. Director Delphine Lehericey and stars Maya Sansa and Thibaut Evrard explain why the script had the cast in tears and how the focus of the story had to change for TV.
The utopian dreams of three friends living in the Swiss countryside come under threat from social change – and the arrival of drug culture – in a Swiss series that has its roots in a graphic novel first published in 2012.
Les Indociles (The Firebrands) opens in the early 1970s as friends Lulu, Chiara and Joe find themselves on the brink of adulthood. Together they share a dream to build a world of freedom and equality where nobody is left behind. But as the hippie wave ignites and hard drugs find their way into their conservative village, the trio are confronted by the consequences of excess and addiction, leading them to build a pioneering shelter for drug addicts.
Notably, each episode of the five-part series makes significant strides through time as the story – and the characters – move from the 1970s to the 80s and 90s, with youthful rebellion, passionate idealism and wide-eyed wonder being challenged on the way.
In the same vein as The Crown, the period drama also uses different actors to play the young and older versions of the same characters. Marinel Mittempergher and Thomas Blanchard play Lulu, Fotinì Peluso and Maya Sansa star as Chiara, and Arcadi Radeff and Thibaut Evrard play Joe.
Directed by Delphine Lehericey (The Last Dance), The Firebrands is produced by Box Productions and Entre Chien et Loup, based on Camille Rebetez and Pitch Comment’s celebrated graphic novel saga of the same name. It will debut on Swiss national broadcaster RTS later this year and is distributed internationally by Oble.
It was after Lehericey and Evrard (Paris Police 1900) collaborated on 2019 feature Le milieu de l’horizon (Beyond the Horizon) that Box, which produced the film, contacted the director about the project. “They said, ‘Now we have to do a TV series and we want you on that,’” the director tells DQ. “I was not very comfortable at the beginning because it is very intimidating for me to have to direct all the episodes alone, because it takes a long time. I like TV series but I didn’t know if I’d be able to do this.”
The Swiss-born filmmaker then met Rebetez and read the comics, but she thought something was missing from the original story that would help its adaptation from the page to the screen.
“This is the real story of Camille and his community – communists, anarchists, so many people who want to make music and have discussions about society,” she explains. “I said it would be hard for me to shoot something where people are talking all the time and nothing happens. They just talk about politics and stuff, and it could be very boring.
“But the three characters were very interesting: Joe is dealing with his homosexuality, Chiara is from an immigrant background and is a drug addict, and Lulu is a political guy who is always saying something about the world. We kept the most important characters and we imagined how we could open up the story to talk more about drugs.”
Belgian actor Evrard grew up in Switzerland and was already familiar with the show’s source material. Then following their first project together, he jumped at the chance to reunite with Lehericey. “She proposed something I’d never done, which is to play a character who is tortured and is coming out, but he did everything to be accepted – he is married and has a child but he is profoundly sad and he wants to rise again,” the actor says. “I thought there was a real direction for the character.
“To be honest, the first time I read the scripts, I cried. And we all did when we read the five episodes together for the first time. Everyone melted – it was pathetic! It was something beautiful we had in our hands and Delphine’s hands. She brings everyone together and directs really well, so I was very excited by the idea of working with her again.”
Meanwhile, Lehericey first met Sansa (Buogiorno Notte) over Zoom. “I said, ‘I have to work with this woman,” the director recalls.
“It’s a marvellous role; I was very excited,” Sansa says of playing the older Chiara. “Our encounter on Zoom was great. As soon as I met her, I was like, ‘I have to get this role.’ She called me a few days later saying she was keen to work with me too, and I was very excited.
“I read the script and I loved it. The whole story is intense and touching. It makes you laugh, it makes you cry, it’s political – there’s everything. It was irresistible as a project. I had watched Delphine’s previous film with Thibaut and I loved it. I thought, ‘This is a great director to work with.’”
The cast and crew all met in person for the first time when production began in Switzerland. Shooting out of sequence meant the older cast members shot scenes first, and it was then up to the younger actors to try to match their performances as younger versions of the same characters.
Unfortunately for Sansa, she could only initially speak with Peluso, who plays the younger Chiara, on the phone and via Zoom before Peluso was available to come to set. But to help them and all the leading actors build their performances, Lehericey orchestrated improvisation sessions between them. “The actors had to improvise with their younger equivalents and try to find things to integrate into the work,” Sansa explains. “It was nice just to watch and participate, and the shoot was great fun.
“It was like the pleasure of being back at drama school. We were sharing and spending time together, having fun and exploring. It was a perfect project, really.”
Lehericey admits that she worried before the shoot about whether she would have enough time to prepare. “Time is money,” she notes. But she praises the show’s production team for building a schedule that would ensure there was time for her and the cast to rehearse and discuss upcoming scenes.
“It was really important for me to have time with the actors, and we were never in a rush,” the director continues. “The days were really full of work but we had time to talk, to search for something, to say, ‘I don’t like this, we have to do it again.’ We had space to imagine the story.
“The whole story is on the shoulders of the characters and the actors. Actors have the responsibility of their own character; they have to work alone, but I could answer their questions. Those actors are marvellous really, and I can see that in the editing.”
When it came to shooting the French-language series – it was filmed mostly in the Swiss Jura mountains where the story is set – the director chose to depart from the style of the graphic novels, largely as a result of introducing the drug-addiction element of the series, which affects the central characters’ paths.
“We were writing something more dramatic and more political. I realised we had an enormous responsibility, because you don’t tell the story of just little people in the country with farming – you’re telling the story of a country and the world, and what happened to people and what we do with those people who use drugs,” explains Lehericey, who also wrote the series with Joanne Giger, Aurélie Champagne, Olivier Volpi and Rebetez.
“It was important for me to have a naturalistic approach, like a documentary. I watched so much footage and then we met people who came from this period – politicians, former addicts and people who still use drugs 40 years later. I wanted an aesthetic that was not a brilliant, sexy, cool image of addiction but shows the reality of it. It’s your uncle, your sister, your mother, your friend – those people can be in your family, in your circle, and it was very important for me to stay in this reality.”
The director goes as far as to describe the series as “strange,” owing to the fact there isn’t a thriller device used to drive the plot forward. Instead, “we had to create the desire for the audience to stay with the characters. That’s what we worked on with the editors,” she says. “We are trying to do something with the timing and the rhythm to say to the viewer, ‘We are in a family together. I don’t want you to leave.’ I hope at the end of the fifth episode, people are going to feel like they have lost something they love. That is the ambition of the show.”
That ambition certainly challenged the cast to find ways they could relate to their characters, with numerous meetings being held between the actors and Lehericey to chart the way through what is often an intense and emotionally charged story.
“It was like a moving dream through those three months [in production], where it’s never decided if I’m going to do this or that,” Evrard says. “Delphine has this way of doing things where she’ll give you a little anecdote or a hint of something before, which is an enormous bomb in what you had in mind and it changes everything. Then you just go with it and trust her. She knows the characters best; she’s been working on it for four years, so she has an idea of it, you have your idea and you try to find the right direction together.”
“Once you work with Delphine on the journey of the character, there’s a chemistry and alchemy that can be surprising,’ Sansa notes. “I felt we were searching together and trying to surprise each other in a good sense and avoid the obvious – not as an intellectual thing, but as a way to really let things happen and take what Delphine would give us in the moment. The actors she chose were definitely people we could work with. Nobody could come with a preconceived idea or a rigidity. That doesn’t allow you to be creative. It was a very inspiring space.”
The Italian actor could also relate to Chiara through her own experiences growing up in Rome during the 1980s, where she would often meet drug addicts on her journey to and from school as a young girl.
“They were nice young men and women who were not well but they were very smiley. Sometimes they were like ghosts wandering around, but they were part of the community,” she remembers. “Playing Chiara was very touching for me. She allowed me to go back into this childhood and look at people in a different way and also get close to them again, understand them and be angry with them because maybe some of them didn’t make it. It’s been an intense journey full of joy but it echoed [my own life] somehow. People will have a lot of empathy for these different characters.”
The focus on character leads Sansa to say that The Firebrands is not a series that will feature cliffhangers at the end of every episode in a bid to keep viewers watching. Instead, audiences will follow three friends on a journey through the emergence of a drugs crisis in Switzerland, an event that led the country to introduce an innovative and radical drugs policy that has become a standard-bearer for the rest of the world. Switzerland’s ‘four-pillar model’ – prevention, treatment, harm reduction and law enforcement – has been credited with reducing the country’s overdose deaths by 50%, and new heroin users by 80%, between 1991 and 2010.
“We don’t imagine something really different,” Lehericey says of the series. “We just play with this format and with the opportunity to explore the characters. In a long feature, you don’t have all this time to build characters. But in a TV show with five episodes, it’s fantastic. This kind of saga is very moving, and that’s what we’re trying to do. This is not a crime story or something with a hospital. This is life.”
tagged in: Arcadi Radeff, Aurélie Champagne, Box Productions, Camille Rebetez, Delphine Lehericey, Entre Chien et Loup, Fotinì Peluso, Joanne Giger, Les Indociles, Marinel Mittempergher, Maya Sansa, Oble, Olivier Volpi, RTS, The Firebrands, Thibaut Evrard, Thomas Blanchard