Flemish producer Philippe De Schepper reveals how he blended reality and fiction for science-fiction series Arcadia, which imagines a world where people’s quality of life is based on a ‘citizen score’ and explores what happens when one person tries to bend the rules for his family.
In the near future, following a catastrophic event, Arcadia is a society existing on limited resources. To provide social cohesion, its citizens are awarded a ‘score’ based on what they contribute, in order to establish the quality of life they deserve.
But when a father from the highest end of the social spectrum is found to have tampered with the government’s algorithm that determines these scores (to raise those of his own children), his family’s world is thrown into turmoil.
This is the premise of Arcadia, a Flemish-Dutch sci-fi series co-created by Philippe De Schepper and Bas Adriaensen. It stars Lynn Van Royen of Beau Sejour and Tablula Rasa fame, and Maarten Heijmans, who won an Emmy for Ramses.
Sci-fi famously uses a vision of the future to comment on the present and Arcadia is no exception. “In China, they used to have a social contract where people would monitor each other, but this became harder when their cities became so big,” says showrunner De Schepper, speaking recently at the La Rochelle TV festival in France, where Arcadia was an entered into the international competition.
“So the next best thing is the social credit system. For example, if you are an investigative journalist, your score is lowered and you may only be able to travel in restricted areas.” He points out that this phenomenon is not alien to Europe either. “In East Germany, by the time the Berlin wall fell, one in three people worked for the Stasi [secret police], spying on their friends and family,” he explains.
A coproduction between VRT’s Een in Belgium and Dutch broadcaster KRO-NCRV’s NPO, the eight-part series debuted locally earlier this year. Notably, its budget was boosted by the involvement of Germany’s WDR/SWR, which helped raise the money that was required to deliver the costly production values and special effects needed to create the show’s visual spectacle.
But despite being considered a risky genre to tackle, in this case, sci-fi presented opportunities. Because Arcadia is set in the future, in a world that is not supposed to be real, this removes some of the constraints normally associated with coproductions, such as having to shoot in specific locations or using actors from specific countries.
“Viewers don’t ask why all these actors from Flanders and the Netherlands are all together in the same place because it’s not real anyway,” says De Schepper, who is currently working on the last re-writes of season two.
For VRT, a family-driven channel, the family drama element of the series appealed. “They didn’t want it to be too sci-fi,” says De Schepper, while the “near future, thriller elements” were what NPO wanted for its viewers.
Sci-fi is a rare phenomenon in the European TV drama market, but Arcadia’s premise resonated with the public broadcasters because it carries themes of solidarity.
“A lot of people today, whether right or left wing, are not happy at all. They all say they want a fair society and that citizens should get what they deserve in relation to what the contribute. However, as soon as you try to regulate this it becomes unfair in one group’s eyes. It’s very hard for people to accept they can live in a world that is not just.”
Despite De Schepper himself not being a regular user of social media, Arcadia seems to reflect on the culture of ‘likes’ and social acceptance. For example, in order to protect Luz, his daughter who doesn’t always conform to accepted norms of social behaviour, Pieter has tinkered with the algorithm so her score does not fall below the threshold required to stay within Arcadia’s walls. When he is caught, he is banished to the wild and mysterious wasteland of the Outer World.
The theme of what it means to ‘fit in’ resonated with the mother of an actor who plays Nobel, a boy with Down’s syndrome. When she read the scripts, she said: “’This is exactly the world I’m living in,’” recalls De Schepper.
The judges of the show at La Rochelle felt Arcadia was “a refreshing proposal” and particularly liked it’s “Black Mirror elements,” says Hector Lavigne, head of acquisitions and productions at NBCUniversal France and a member of the European selection committee.
The show, the Flemish industry and De Schepper himself are all unique. “Officially I am a director but I never directed,” he says. “At the time, you could not study screenwriting in Flanders so I went to film school.” He taught himself how to write and landed a job at the production company Eyeworks, where he helped establish a drama department.
“I wanted to do it the American way,” he says. “So I started putting writers together and running rooms, something that no one else was doing at that time.” His breakthrough came in 2006 working as showrunner on Missing Persons Unit ,which was sold to M6 in France.
He also created the country’s most watched TV show of all time, Home Grown, which is about potato farmers who switch to growing marijuana. Then, with producing partner Helen Perquy at Jonnydepony, they focused on shows that would have appeal outside of Belgium just as the streamers were coming to Europe. Blackout and Transport were other successes.
The Flemish industry is hotbed of creativity for unorthodox reasons. “Whereas French and Italian screenwriters are rooted in the traditions of TV storytelling, we don’t have a long history of making series,” De Schepper notes. “Nor do we have the educational system for screenwriters. Similarly, the commissioners don’t have this knowledge.
“In a lot of countries, if you pitch an idea, they might say, ‘Sorry, we could never do that show because we tried it once and it didn’t work.’ or ‘We had that problem with another show’ and so on. Because we don’t have that history, everything is possible. Commissioners are not afraid to say, ‘That’s a nice idea for a show, let’s make it.’ That’s why we make a lot of strange shows.”