In the driving seat
Showrunner Eugen Tunik tells DQ how he wanted to look at the Ukraine war from a new angle with In Her Car, in which a therapist takes her clinic on the road to help a number of characters in distress.
Set in the weeks after the start of the war in Ukraine, In Her Car goes to the heart of the conflict by exploring the stories of those whose lives it has changed forever.
The 10-part series centres on Lydia (Anastasia Karpenko), an experienced therapist who helps others improve their lives but finds her own private life in disarray, chiefly due to the divorce she is seeking from her husband Dmytro.
When Lydia picks up a young woman trying to flee the war just as bombs start to fall on Kyiv, it’s the start of an odyssey that sees her taxi a number of different people to their destinations, while helping them to deal with their personal struggles. Along the way, her passengers’ dilemmas intertwine with her own life, and she slowly uncovers her husband’s sinister deeds and the real reason for her sister’s death.
Despite its setting, the show’s universal themes and stories mean In Her Car has become a truly international series. Produced by Starlight Productions and Gaumont for France Télévisions and Germany’s ZDF, the drama is also set to air across Europe through SVT (Sweden), DR (Denmark), YLE (Finland), NRK (Norway), RÚV (Iceland) and SRF (Switzerland). Beta Film is distributing the drama.
The idea behind the series first came to creator and showrunner Eugen Tunik after he had finished sessions with his own therapist. When she then called him after the start of the war to offer him help, it inspired him to create the character of Lydia, who is popular on social media and always makes herself available to offer advice and guidance.
It’s while she’s on the road in episode one that the war begins. And over the nine episodes that follow, Lydia continues to support different people as they travel together across Ukraine.
“Every trip is a kind of like therapy session,” Tunik tells DQ. “Every passenger in her car undergoes some kind of therapy because they come with a problem that touches a conflict that began before the war. During the trip, she doesn’t give answers but gives advice and helps the person to find the clues to find the answers themselves.
“There’s also the powerful storyline of the main character, which connects with her past because she’s from Donbas and became a refugee eight years ago when the conflict began there. This story influences her work as well.”
“Sometimes the stories of the passengers are really connected to Lydia’s own personal story,” the writer continues. “The second episode is also dedicated to Lydia because she transports a person with a very close story to her own. The passengers’ stories also affect Lydia and she changes through the story so, by the end, we’ll see a different person than we saw at the beginning.”
Though the Russian invasion of Ukraine is ongoing, Tunik says not enough time has passed to analyse it in any significant way. With this drama, however, he uses the war as backdrop to the story of a woman who offers strangers shelter and companionship away from the nightmare their reality has become.
“I do not touch real events – Bucha, Mariupol. We only hear that something has happened somewhere through the radio,” he says. “Could this story have happened before the war? Maybe, but this profession, being a transporter, it wasn’t necessary before the war. Everybody could get to the places they needed, so the war has meant these kinds of people have appeared.
“War here is a setting and the story is about everybody – it could happen in any other European country. The characters are local but their problems are very common to people in the UK, France or Germany. We have our partners and they totally understand the characters and their problems because I wanted to make them universal. The only thing that distinguishes them is that we have worse neighbours. But this couldn’t just happen here, it could happen in any other country.”
Episode one sees Lydia come to the aid of a young woman who is having problems with her sister, while Tunik says many of the storylines reflect society in Ukraine. One example is a Ukrainian soldier whose parents and relatives do not accept he is gay, but when Lydia picks up his grandmother in her car, they discuss the possibility that he might never return from war and she will not have another chance to reconcile with him.
“I chose these topics because humanity and kindness are necessary all the time, even in the darkest times, because war happens but human problems and conflicts are still there before and afterwards,” Tunik says. “The war is just a trigger for some people to resolve some problems that had their roots long before.”
The universal characters and dilemmas discussed in the series ensure In Her Car has something to offer viewers beyond Ukraine, and it was designed that way from the outset. Tunik took his idea for the series – his first ever coproduction – to some European festivals and was invited to pitch the show to industry executives at Berlinale.
That was where he met Gaumont producer Andreas F Bareiss, who connected with Ukrainian producer Starlight Media to develop the series and start looking for broadcast partners. France Télevisions and ZDF signed up, and Beta Film is continuing to shop the series worldwide ahead of its launch next year.
Tunik wrote all 10 episodes, and admits it was a difficult process. “But I love it because the story is in my head,” he says. “It’s a really wonderful process to work with European countries for the first time and cooperate in this way. They trust me, but at the same time we are doing our work together.”
The characters in the series are all composites of people Tunik has met, seen on the news or interviewed before filming began earlier this year, with Tunik and Arkadiy Nepytaliuk co-directing. “Every character also has something from me,” he says, “something from relatives, something from friends. It’s fiction, but it’s based on the events I saw. It’s the story of me, my friends, my relatives, my colleagues. Every character has their roots in my close circle.”
But as he was writing the scripts, Tunik also had to work closely with the production team to work out exactly how they would shoot the drama in Kyiv against the backdrop of a real conflict.
“The rules we have now have changed our reality, but we found a way to deal with it,” he says. “There’s a curfew, so we can shoot from 5am until 10pm but we can’t shoot at night. If the air raid alarm begins, we have to go to the shelter – that’s why every location has a bomb shelter and medical services.
“In one episode we also have French characters, played by actors who came to Ukraine to shoot. I was afraid how it would be and if it would be ok, but there weren’t any alarms during their week in Kyiv. Nothing happened, so they were very happy with the process and they still send me messages. For them, it was an unusual experience to shoot in a country where there is a war. For me, it was an experience to work with foreign characters in French, English and Ukrainian and follow the rules of wartime.”
Despite the shooting conditions, Tunik set high standards for In Her Car, shooting every episode like a short movie. The series also had a constantly revolving cast, as each part would introduce new characters and create new worlds through flashbacks to reveal the back story behind Lydia’s latest passenger.
“The only thing that doesn’t change is Lydia’s car and being on the road,” he says of the complicated production.
Meanwhile, finding the actor to play Lydia proved to be relatively straightforward. “Anastasia’s such a good actress and such a strong person, she’s the best,” Tunik says. “When our team was so tired, Anastasia would be like, ‘I’m going to work, let’s do one more shot.’
“I didn’t know who would play Lydia but we had auditions and then I saw Anastasia’s movie How is Katia? in a film festival, and she won the main prize. The moment I saw her on the screen in this film, I understood she was Lydia and I needed to work with her. She liked the role of Lydia, and Gaumont and our partners agreed with me that she was the right person for this role.”
With the series due to launch across Europe next year, Tunik says his ambition with In Her Car is to continue to raise awareness of the crisis in Ukraine through a story that resonates with people of any background.
“My main goal is to tell the world war still exists in Ukraine,” he says. “With news every day about Ukraine, it becomes tiring, even for Ukrainians. But this is the moment when we have to show the war with fiction, from a different angle.
“I hope In Her Car will remind the audience the war still exists. We are here and we are the same as you. It could happen to anybody.”