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.
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.
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.
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.
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.