Tag Archives: Anna Winger

Running the show

Showrunners from some of the biggest dramas in the US come together to discuss their approach to the demanding role, how the industry is changing and how they seek to reflect current events and culture in their work.

While the role of the showrunner in television drama is spreading around the world as writers become more involved in the production side of making series, it is a title that still remains synonymous with the US industry.

Writers, creators, directors, producers, problem solvers – showrunners take the lead on all aspects of the series they are working on, making decisions on both the creative and business sides.

During the recent digital edition of Canada’s BANFF World Media Festival, six showrunners came together to share their experiences of working on series including Pose, Unorthodox, The Morning Show, Vida, Dead to Me and Little Fires Everywhere.

Showrunning means wearing a lot of hats…

Kerry Ehrin, showrunner and executive producer of AppleTV+’s The Morning Show: When I started showrunning, I remember texting Jason Katims, who I had worked with previously as a producer on Friday Night Lights, and he said, ‘Showrunning is basically like you live on an island by yourself. But no one comes to visit you except to complain.’
That’s my emotional definition of showrunning. It’s a creative management job. You have to wear two hats: you have to be able to access these incredibly vulnerable parts of yourself on cue, because there’s a schedule to keep up with; and you also have to be able to step away from that and be incredibly analytical and managerial. But essentially it’s a management job that also requires you to be incredibly creative.

Tanya Saracho, creator, showrunner and executive producer of Starz series Vida: I directed half of this [third] season and it just supported the showrunner job. I got told in the first year by an executive that I was responsible for every frame that I delivered. I took that really seriously. I never left set. It just stayed in my mind, so the directing part was just natural. And there was no middle woman to have to convince and pitch to.
It was faster, but it also allowed me to be in control and deliver every frame and just be responsible for that. Basically, you’re responsible for everything as a showrunner.

Steven Canals, co-creator and executive producer of FX’s Pose: When I think of showrunning or the showrunner, the first word that comes to mind is ‘visionary.’ What’s so important is that, as a showrunner, you’ve convinced a network and a studio that you have the goods to take this project across the finish line.
At every point, you always have to have that vision at the forefront [of your mind] and be able to clearly articulate that to all the individuals who are collaborating with you to help you get that project across the finish line.
The first season, I made a very concerted effort to be focused on the success of the series because we’ve never seen black and brown queer and trans people on television in this way before. Like most individuals from historically marginalised communities, whether you’re a person of colour or LGBTQ or a woman, you think if this show isn’t successful then you are somehow closing the door, at least in the eyes of all the gatekeepers in our industry, from all the other queer people of colour who have stories to tell as well.

Showrunners learn on the job…

Liz Feldman, creator, showrunner and executive producer of Netflix show Dead to Me (pictured top): Nobody just has the skills and the knowledge to be a showrunner. It’s 11 jobs in one – you learn as you go. First I gained the confidence to be the head writer, to be the person in the room who is being the arbiter of the tone. Then you learn how to be that shepherd on set. It is your vision and you have to keep to that steadfast.
I’ve made mistakes; I learned as I went. But for the most part, I don’t think, ‘I’m a woman in this job’ or ‘I’m a gay woman in this job.’ Somebody thought I could do this, and that somebody was me first. As long as I fake it until I make it, I’m going to keep trying. And it’s OK if sometimes I fail, as long as I get back up and lead with kindness and do my best.

Liz Tigelaar, showrunner, Little Fires Everywhere: I’ve had a lot of mentors. Sometimes a mentor was someone pulling me aside and being like, ‘You have to stop pitching the same thing three times.’ Sometimes it was in the form of tough love, sometimes it was in the form of a lot of compassion and support. Sometimes it was just in the form of hiring me again and again and having faith in me.
The first time I was a showrunner was on a show called Life Unexpected. I remember standing in the room, looking at the writers, staring at the board and being like, ‘Who’s gonna figure this out?’ I always think, ‘You invited everyone to this party – you better have a lot of food and drinks to serve.’ You’ve got to be ready to host.

Make your show with people who come from the community you’re representing…

Anna Winger, creator and executive producer of Netflix’s Unorthodox: It takes a village to make a TV show, and [as showrunner] you’re the mayor of the village. That’s how it feels to me. There are all these incredibly talented people working with me but, in the end, I’m in charge of delivering the show.
I make another show [trilogy Deutschland 83, 86 and 89] and I’ve never showrun a show that I wasn’t the creator of. In both cases, they are about very specific things, and most of the actors were from the community [the show is about]. I was working really intensely with people and really listening to people who knew more than I did about all kinds of details. I’m driven by a lot of curiosity, so part of the pleasure was to work with this amazing village of people.

Saracho: I’d only been here [in Hollywood] for three years and then I got this show, so I didn’t know you didn’t do a lot of stuff, like hire all Latinx writers. That made sense to me. But the first person we hired was my Latina casting director.
I need truth in everything, in every aspect of the story. The most important aspect is the cast, and that’s where you start. None of my actors are very experienced. We cast the net wide, especially for the queer characters in my show. You have to cast a net to the communities and really engage with the community you’re trying to represent.
The DNA of who made this was so important – the writers were all queer Latinas, especially in the last two years. The directors were Latina. It matters not just because you have skin in the game but because we keep each other honest. That was the key – stories about us, by us. That made the difference.

Jennifer Aniston (left) and Reese Witherspoon in The Morning Show

Series should reflect the times in which they are made…

Ehrin: Nina Simone famously said, ‘How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?’ That’s a given. People who do what we do, who are creative, we’re like a vessel that just takes stuff in, repurposes it and puts it back out as something creative.
There’s no doubt all of this [Covid-19, the death of George Floyd] is going to impact everything we all do. I’ve never lived in a year like this . It’s a huge year and important, scary, emotionally moving things are happening. Of course that’s going to enter all of our work.

Canals: The best art, the best work always reflects our humanity and is culturally relevant. Shows that specifically address issues around race, class, gender, sexual orientation and religion are important. I certainly always hope to accomplish this in my own work. There’s a way for us to find that intersection between education and entertainment.
I hope all the other showrunners out there, and certainly anyone who’s up and coming, will continue to keep their finger on the pulse of what the conversations are that need to be happening right now and allow that to fuel the work.
That said, I don’t know if all the work we create has to directly address what’s happening. My hope is that we don’t come out of this and then suddenly find that networks are flooded with shows about global pandemics. That’s not necessarily what we’re saying. But what are the ways within your work that you can address issues in a way that isn’t necessarily thumping your audience over the head with that message? We try to accomplish that, for example, in Pose, where we’re telling a very honest story about the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Liz Feldman says her Netflix series Dead to Me came ‘from a very personal place’

Personal stories are universal stories…

Feldman: I created Dead to Me from a very personal place. It’s not an autobiographical story, but I honed in on very specific feelings that I was working through, and the way I do that as an artist is through writing.
Sometimes when we hone in on the most personal feelings, they tend to be incredibly universal. I intentionally keep the show slightly evergreen in terms of it not being a ‘ripped from the headlines’ kind of show – you’re not going to see Covid on the show. I don’t think anybody watches Dead to Me to see exactly what’s going on in that cultural or socio-political moment.
However, in this second season, I was really affected, as were all of the women in the writers room – and my writers room is all women except for one token guy – by the [cases of] child separation at the [US/Mexico] border. We wanted to tell a story about motherhood and what happens when you separate a child from their mother. Those are the kind of stories we’re going to continue to tell. In time, we probably will want to see specific stories about this moment of reckoning, upheaval and uprising for black and racial justice in this country. I think it’s our responsibility to hone into how we feel.

Winger: One of the pleasures of the way we work and of writers rooms is the collective conversation. I got into this late in life and I’m in it for the writers room. I love the conversation, I love the collaboration with other people – to have the privilege of being able to discuss what’s happening in the world through the filter of your work. How lucky are we to be able to make those projects and for them to reach the world?

Tigelaar: Little Fires Everywhere is the longest eight episodes of television I’ve ever made. It’s taken four-and-a-half years, so these conversations, societally and culturally, we’re having right now, I was fortunate enough to be having two years ago.
It’s not like you’re necessarily trying to be relevant. You can’t help but infuse everything that you personally are grappling with and seeing and trying to digest and process. That is going to come into the story. Then when you sit in a room with seven other people, you get what they’re grappling with, what they’re digesting and processing, and that’s where this beautiful work gets to intersect and happen.

Unorthodox, created and showrun by Deutschland 83’s Anna Winger

Leadership positions in television are becoming more inclusive and diverse…

Winger: Any of us who has the position to choose who’s hired, you’d better believe we’re thinking about inclusion. It’s not just about us being the leaders, it’s also about the next generation of people coming up working with us.
At the beginning, I was the only woman in the room. Now, it’s not just a question of women, it’s a question of everything, including people of colour and people of different sexual orientation and different identity. It’s changing in great ways.

Feldman: In my first job 25 years ago in a writers room, I was the only woman, and they had to hire a woman – it was a mandate. That was the only reason I was hired in the first place. Now I’m the woman who hires all the people in the room.
I’ve experienced the evolution and the progression of what happens when a woman is in charge, especially dealing with men and CIS men – you can pick up a vibe pretty quickly if they’re going to be able to handle having a female showrunner and boss. You just end up hiring people you feel that mutual respect for.

Canals: From a male perspective, what’s really important for men to acknowledge is that we all participate in a system that obviously privileges men and disadvantages women. So it is essential to think about the ways you work within the system and continue to benefit from it. Hopefully then, as a result, you’ll start to make certain choices on the projects that you’re working on, whether it’s hiring women – not because you feel like you need a token woman voice in your room, but because it’s important to have lots of different types of opinions and perspectives in a writers room – or, in the case of Pose, having a show that has a black trans woman as the centre of that narrative, or thinking about hiring practices and having female heads of departments.
The expectation is that women are going to be the ones to solve the problem, as if men are somehow removed from the conversation. It’s important that we participate, are absolutely part of creating this culture and are part of the solution as well.

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Back in the field

Three years after German breakout drama Deutschland 83 travelled around the world, Deutschland 86 continues the story of reluctant Stasi agent Martin Rauch. DQ visits the set to find out why this spy thriller is more than a history lesson.

Deutschland 83, from American writer Anna Winger and her German husband Joerg, aired in 110 territories, winning an International Emmy for telling a relatively untold story through the prism of a spy thriller, with all the trappings of the era – from the music to the fashion – present and correct. It also launched Channel 4’s foreign-language streaming service Walter Presents, and became the UK’s highest-rating subtitled drama when it aired on its parent broadcaster in 2016.

Three years have passed since then, both in the real world and in that of the series. Deutschland 86 picks up the story of reluctant Stasi agent Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay) in the unlikely environs of an Angolan orphanage. It feels like scant reward for saving the world from nuclear disaster in 1983, but he has been banished there, far from his girlfriend and infant son, for the crime of blowing his cover. When his aunt, Lenora (Maria Schrader), herself tainted by his perceived blunder, arrives in West Africa to send him back into the field, he consents on the understanding that he can return home when he completes his mission.

“A lot of people are interested in Martin,” says Anna Winger. “His legend from 1983 has travelled, then people meet him and no one believes it’s him. He’s asking himself what kind of life he wants to live now that he can try to take control of his own destiny. He has to decide whether to live up to that reputation or escape it.”

Anna Winger

“Falling in love, killing a man, being separated from his family for three years… These experiences have changed Martin a lot,” says Nay. “His motivation for the whole season is to get back home, meet his three-year-old son and start a new life.”

This is easier said than done, of course, when his assignment includes running with Libyan insurgents, terrorists in Paris and journeying to Cape Town, another divided city also caught between global superpowers. The fall of the Berlin Wall all but coincided with the collapse of Apartheid, the Wingers noted. Was there a connection?

It turned out that there was. East Germany supported Nelson Mandela and the ANC as fellow socialists, training the latter’s militant wing, the MK. West Germany, meanwhile, observed the UN boycott on trading with South Africa while trading arms with the Apartheid regime on the side. The ‘good guys’ were, it seems, on the wrong side of history.

Most peculiar of all was the prospect of the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR), increasingly distant from Moscow and running out of money, propping up an ailing regime by engaging in criminal capitalism. This need for hard currency, and a growing sense of panic, brought them into the world of illicit arms dealing, running drug trials for Western Big Pharma, even selling dissidents to and borrowing huge sums from West Germany.

“The theme of the season is that it all comes down to money,” says Anna. “The wall came down because they ran out of cash and Apartheid failed for the same reason. 1986 was getting darker in the GDR – the iceberg is on the horizon. There was an exhaustion setting in about the Cold War. People were done, they didn’t want it any more, and the same was true of Apartheid.”

D86 also tracks the green movement, given a huge if unfortunate boost by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and the growing AIDS crisis, while the so-called Summer of Anxiety, when terrorist attacks blighted Europe, unavoidably invokes present-day concerns over terrorism, albeit religiously rather than politically motivated these days.

Lest that all sounds a little heavy, the Wingers are keen to reiterate that D86 is above all a spy yarn. “Like D83, we built a timeline of events, created a backdrop of real history then set our characters free across it,” says Anna. “It’s an adventure, a spy story and coming-of-age story rather than a history lesson.”

Deutschland 86 continues the story of Jonas Nay’s Martin Rauch

Which makes it a little ironic that DQ is sitting in a room that feels a little like a lecture theatre. We’re in the former Stasi HQ in Berlin – now the Stasi Museum, a grey memorial to an unloved regime but doubling as GDR offices for the series. It’s the final week of a 100-day shoot split between Cape Town and Berlin, and the cast are demob happy in defiance of the oppressively brown surroundings, yet conscious of the legacy contained in the walls of the building.

“The power of this building…” muses Schrader. “You can recreate something on a soundstage but I think people felt the authenticity and attention to detail in the first season. I’m from the West, and this is a loaded place. Knowing what some of my colleagues went through, it was very different for them, but when I entered the building it took a lot of energy.”

Cape Town, meanwhile, proved the perfect location, with its abundance of mid-80s architecture and a surfeit of spectacular scenery allowing it to double for other settings including Johannesburg and Tripoli.

“There’s a huge variety of landscapes and possibilities here,” says Joerg, “although to our chagrin it’s become much more expensive because of all these productions, which is great for the local economy but annoying for us!”

Filming in South Africa was an eye-opening experience for some of the cast, who discovered alarming evidence of Apartheid’s baleful legacy. “People would call it economic problems,” says Schrader, grimacing. “But the economic war is a racist war in South Africa. It’s normal in a restaurant that all the guests are white and the staff are black.”

Maria Schrader returns as Martin’s aunt, Lenora

The new locations also created openings for new characters, many of them women, most notably Rose Seithathi (Florence Kasumba) and Brigitte Winkelmann (Lavinia Wilson). It all makes for a breath of fresh air after D83’s predominance of middle-aged white men in cheap suits.

“Brigitte is a symbol for all the Western 80s decadence you can imagine,” says Wilson, a German resident despite the name. “She’s the wife of a German diplomat in Cape Town and her official job is a dentist, then one day Martin shows up at her clinic… She has another job, of course – she’s an undercover agent for West Germany, a player with lots of attitude and a really good liar, which I am definitely not. She’s full of surprises.”

“Rose grew up with a mother working in a German Jewish household,” Kasumaba, who played an ally of King T’Challa in Marvel’s Black Panther, explains. “She’s a secret agent for the MK who has had to leave her family and country in the past because of her total commitment to the cause. Somewhere along there, she met Lenora and they became a team: they fight together, and Rose needs Lenora’s contacts.”

Nay is thrilled to be back in a series that paved the way for Sky Atlantic’s Babylon Berlin, Netflix’s Dark and the rebooted Das Boot in a genuine renaissance for German television.

“Everybody’s excited,” he grins. “We’re telling the stories we want to tell. We’re late starters in Germany in getting series sold abroad, but we have high-end drama coming now. We were good at art-house cinema, sometimes a miniseries or TV film, but now doors are opening for serials.”

Back in 2015, the Wingers spoke of their concern that D83 would prove an unorthodox fit for RTL, the German broadcaster and coproducer better known for procedurals and gameshows. Domestic viewing figures were indeed disappointing, and so an amicable parting of the ways became almost inevitable. “We were given freedom to make the show we wanted to make, but it wasn’t the right show for them or their audience. There’s no animosity there,” Anna says.

Black Panther’s Florence Kasumba is among some notable female additions to the cast

RTL parent company Fremantle and coproducer UFA Fiction took the show to Amazon Prime, which, attracted by the drama’s international performance and binge-worthy qualities, provided a budget boost to reflect the story’s global remit and extended length, running as it does at 10 rather than eight episodes. Amazon has also committed to a third season, making the Wingers’ dream of completing the trilogy in 1989 a reality.

D86 launches in the UK tonight on More4, with the whole season available on Walter Presents after transmission of the first episode.

“Viewers now don’t care so much about where a series is from,” says Joerg, considering the show’s international success. “They want to be surprised; they’re looking for original material. We’re telling our story in a familiar way for international audiences. The whole grammar and dramaturgy of the show is in line with that. We didn’t strategically plan an international hit. Our goal from the very beginning was to make a show we would love, and if you’re really interested in something, that enthusiasm communicates somehow.”

Said enthusiasm is expressed most effectively, once again, through the diligent, affectionate recreation of the era. “Our make-up artists always said we tell the main story with the characters and we tell the 80s with the extras, who get the big hair and crazy stuff,” laughs Wilson.

Alongside the story, D83 stood out most for its use of music. This year there will be songs from everyone from metal legends Megadeth to synth-pop duo Pet Shop Boys and, perhaps inevitably for a show set in part in Apartheid South Africa, Paul Simon’s Graceland. Nay confides, laughing, that he has once again been lobbying for the inclusion his favourite band, The Police, whose final studio album was released back in 1983. But while he was disappointed at this omission, his passion for the new season is undiminished.

“Having two more episodes than for D83 means more characters and more layers,” he says. “Season one was following Martin; now it’s more an ensemble thing. We had to make up a vision for the first one. Now it feels bigger, and the more I saw, the more interested I got, which I think will be the same for the viewer.”

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Just one more

In the age of binge-watching, what makes a compelling drama that demands viewers watch the next episode immediately? DQ speaks to a host of writers to find out how they keep audiences hooked to the very end.

By now, the effects of the television streaming revolution are well known: there are more shows than ever, in more genres – and without the confines of a weekly schedule, viewers can and do binge multiple episodes in one sitting.

But what has been the effect of this changing landscape on writers in the business? Have they changed their approach to storytelling accordingly, knowing viewers may watch weekly or binge an entire season at once?

One of the best recent examples of a drama series that unashamedly draws viewers in with a plot full of twists and turns and demands watching more than a single episode in one go is Safe, the eight-part Netflix series starring Dexter’s Michael C Hall as a father searching for his missing daughter. During the course of the story, Hall’s Tom discovers revelations that turn the local community upside down as the truth behind a decades-old scandal is uncovered.

It’s exactly the kind of show you would expect from creator Harlan Coben, the bestselling US novelist known for writing fast-paced, gripping thrillers. He has since applied the same formula to the small screen, first in Sky1 drama The Five and more recently with Safe, which landed on Netflix in May.

On both series, Coben has worked alongside British writer Danny Brocklehurst and Red Production Company to craft the closed-ended stories, with Brocklehurst (Ordinary Lies, Come Home) then leading the scriptwriting process.

Michael C Hall in Safe, written by Harlan Coben and Danny Brocklehurst for Netflix

“For me, it’s always about the human angle. That’s the only thing I can ever really connect with,” Brocklehurst says when asked what makes compelling drama. “Whatever I’m doing, I always try to make my stuff have an emotional core. Even with the stuff I do with Harlan, although it’s quite fast-paced and hooky and we’re looking for those twists all the time, I do try to get the audience invested in the characters.

“There can be a really good mystery at the heart of something, there can be a whodunnit or whatever that keeps people watching, but in the end, what people really like are the characters and the world, and that’s what you have to spend quite a lot of time thinking about up front.”

A show like Safe is markedly different from Come Home, an emotional, character-led three-parter that explores the impact of a mother’s decision to leave her family. From the outset, Safe was designed to be binge-watched, the TV equivalent of one of Coben’s novels.

“The only problem with that is people expect that pace all the time,” Brocklehurst admits. “For example, in another series you might think about whether an episode could be a little slower or you might go off on a tangent for a bit, but what you’ve got to do is keep moving forward and servicing the plot. You want people to invest in the characters, but once you’ve set yourself up as a thriller that will have lots of twists and is going to keep surprising and wrong-footing the audience, you’ve got to keep that going as well.

“It’s like running a very elaborate relay race – you just keep passing the baton from episode to episode, hoping that people are compelled by the mystery, like the characters and want to get to the end.”

Deutschland 86, the hotly anticipated sequel to Anna and Joerg Winger’s Deutschland 85

Like Coben, Deutschland 83 creator Anna Winger also comes from a book-writing background and she agrees that propulsive storytelling – the ‘bingeability’ factor – is very novelistic. “Harlan’s books are definitely like that and I think we aim for that with this kind of television,” Winger says. “It is a different way to write. You’re not writing something that’s going to end easily. You need to load the gun at the beginning of a series – you get into the mindset of really pushing it and it’s exciting.”

Winger, who is putting the finishing touches to Cold War drama Deutschland 83’s sequel Deutschland 86 ahead of its debut this autumn, says some of her favourite shows, such as The Wire and Friday Night Lights, blend soap opera elements with societal themes and issues. “That multi-layered storytelling is what I’m most interested in. Friday Night Lights is officially about American football but it’s about everything in society, from race and class to health insurance,” she explains. “That’s something I try to do in Deutschland – to give it two levels at the same time. For people who are interested in history and politics, it’s all there but it’s also just a great adventure story about these characters.

“Then there are shows like Doctor Foster that take place out of time and place. It had no location. It strips away all of that – no history, no politics, no location. It’s all about the intense experience of this character, and it’s so propulsive. I watched the whole thing at once.”

Daragh Carville, the writer of forthcoming ITV crime drama The Bay, shares Winger’s affinity for shows that mix genre and family drama. “Something like Breaking Bad or The Sopranos where it’s both a crime drama and a family drama, that’s the sweet spot I really respond to,” he says. “It needs to have a narrative drive that comes from a combination of character and genre. Tone is really important. Breaking Bad is a perfect example of the impact of tonality where something is terrifying and funny at the same time. Something can be edge-of-your-seat exhilarating but also deeper, emotional and truthful.”

A show like Danish/Swedish crime drama Broen/Bron (The Bridge) epitomises the fine balance between character and plot, presenting characters that viewers want to watch and a storyline that compels them to get to the end of each of its four seasons.

Camilla Ahlgren says the likes of Killing Eve are ‘showing a different way of telling a story’

“It’s important that the characters are affected by what’s happening around them, that you can draw in personal stories sometimes,” explains Camilla Ahlgren, head writer of the Scandinavian hit. “I also think The Bridge is like a whodunnit: we have red herrings and the audience has to work out who the murderer is and you’re trying to surprise them. It’s a balance you have to work with. In the fourth season there were such strong personal stories for [lead characters] Saga and Henrik, so we could spend a little more time with them and not only the case.”

Except in the case of shows specifically made for bingeing, like Safe, Ahlgren says writers never consider whether viewers will watch episodes weekly or in one go. “We don’t even think the whole world is going to watch,” she jokes. “We try to find stories we like and find interesting. The Bridge is sometimes over the top or larger than life as well, so we try to do things we haven’t seen before or try to surprise the audience – in a good way.

“Often when I enjoy something, it’s the characters I’m looking for. I like Happy Valley very much; there are strong characters and it’s realistic. Shows like Killing Eve are something new, showing a different way of telling a story, with strong women and humour in it. I like the characters. That’s important for me.”

David Nicholls, the author and screenwriter behind Sky Atlantic drama Patrick Melrose, says all of the really compelling TV dramas come down to difficult characters – “characters who are complicated and not always likeable and are often quite wicked, insensitive, immoral and unpleasant,” he says. “I think I find that much more compelling than a hero’s recurring adventures. I like things to be gritty, tricky and painful.”

Nicholls confesses he’s “not a big binge-watcher,” and says he has rarely completed a series that runs to as many as seven seasons. “To me, often it’s like not finishing a novel,” he explains. “You get a little bit bored towards the end, episodes seem repetitive and you know the ending’s going to be anti-climactic and disappointing, so I’m constantly bailing on TV shows. The ones I’ve stuck with often have tricky characters with virtuoso performances at their centre.”

Breaking Bad, which Patrick Melrose writer David Nicholls says gripped him ‘like a novel’

The one exception, Nicholls admits, is Breaking Bad, which did grip him like a great novel. “So many other long-running series I’ve just bailed quite quickly because they get repetitive. But Breaking Bad I didn’t really feel that, I just sucked it up. Game of Thrones is my other great vice. Those are the two that keep me occupied.”

For Chris Lang, creator and writer of ITV historic crime drama Unforgotten (pictured top), the key to a compelling drama can be found at a more emotional level. “Truthfulness is what I seek in TV,” he says. “I’m looking for a truthfulness, honesty and insight into the human condition that surprises you. I’m also looking for believability, but not always. I want to be transported and heightened.”

Lang picks out the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale as an example of a series that is “constantly surprising and absolutely compelling.” He also highlights Billions, which he describes as “heightened but with brilliant dialogue and challenging,” while Happy Valley and Broken are both populated with “superb characters, all characterised by honesty.”

Echoing Lang, Keeping Faith creator and writer Matthew Hall believes compelling drama comes down to the emotional conflict inside the central characters. The more lead characters can be pulled in different directions and the more impossible choices they are confronted with, the more interesting they are, he says, adding: “That’s just a fundamental rule of drama.”

Hall says his two favourite drama series are Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, which he describes as “domestic dramas about people who ultimately just want their family to be happy and provided for. But life has conspired to make them do outrageous and impossible things to maintain that domestic stability. All the most successful TV dramas are about family in one way or another because that’s our universal experience.

Keeping Faith creator Matthew Hall says emotional conflict is key to compelling drama

“We love each other and hate each other with extreme passion, often at the same time. That’s what I wanted to inject into Keeping Faith, so Faith [who is searching for her missing husband and played by Eve Myles] married into this extended family and they both love her and hate her. The process of dramatisation is your central characters all have to have something huge at stake in the central narrative.”

Plot is also key, of course. Each season of Unforgotten opens with the discovery of a body and two detectives tasked with bringing the culprits to book. There are also a handful of seemingly unrelated characters who, through the course of the story, are each revealed to have been connected with the victim, with Lang expertly building the tension until the reveal at the season’s end.

“The plot is the device to open the story, and you have to get it right,” the writer says. “It’s one of the things that pulls people through. But I don’t use it to hang the characters on. Instead, I use it to explore interesting dynamics within families. There are endlessly interesting stories to tell in a dysfunctional family.”

Describing the process of piecing together a story as “Darwinian,” Lang continues: “It’s a to and fro relationship between character and narrative – it evolves, it’s not created. The characters and the plot emerge slowly. You go back to one or the other and keep doing that until you’re working through the episodes.”

Anna Winger

Hall, meanwhile, compares the construction of a story to chiselling out a statue. “There’s a finished work in there somewhere, you’ve just got to discover it,” he says.

There remains a debate, however, over the extent to which a drama should rely on plot devices like cliffhangers or red herrings to keep audiences gripped as the show carries them along to its conclusion. “If you’re making something for Netflix or Amazon, the ‘bingeability’ factor is significant,” Winger says. “In the past there were cliffhangers that made you come back the next week, but it’s not quite the same as that. It’s almost as if you have the luxury to write a whole story, a really long movie, because you know your audience will keep watching it, while we didn’t have that opportunity before.”

Carville says cliffhangers are needed but stresses that an “organic” structure is key to any successful drama. “Really what we want is to tell human stories and explore character,” he says. “They way you do that is through structure and a kind of narrative that has forward dynamics to it. Cliffhangers are really just turning points in the story and they always have to be emotional.”

Plot devices are “absolutely invaluable,” according to Hall, “but the point is they’re of secondary significance. If you just manufacture them, they’re not powerful, but if they’re motivated through the story, they work and become powerful.”

Brocklehurst, however, warns against the use of endings that cheat viewers in some way. “You’re always trying to play fair with the story you’re telling and not just suddenly creating a massive cheating hook just because you need something to make people watch the next one,” he notes.

Ultimately, the trick for writers is to “write something you want to watch,” Winger sums up. “The most important thing as a writer is that you want to write the next episode. You want to know what happens next and to just go down a rabbit hole with these stories.”

And if the writer wants to know what happens next, there’s a good chance viewers will too. How they watch it, however, is up to them.

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Cold War heats up

First airing on RTL in Germany, Deutschland 83 became a worldwide sensation as audiences became gripped by the story of an East German spy’s attempts to uncover a plot – and keep his identity secret – in West Berlin.

Co-creator Anna Winger, who is also the head writer, tells DQ how she shared the labour of showrunning with husband Jörg Winger and how she used her background as a novelist to plot her first television drama.

Deutschland 83 is produced by UFA Fiction and distributed by FremantleMedia International.

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Writing shows with mass audience appeal

Peter Lenkov
Peter Lenkov

In this golden age of TV, it’s easy to fixate on the high-end limited series that dominate cable and SVoD schedules. But spare a thought for the mainstream scripted series that deliver huge ratings and ad revenues week after week for networks.

A good example is CBS crime procedural Hawaii Five-0, which is currently dominating Friday nights at 21.00 in the US with an audience of approximately 10 million, compared with the meagre 1.7 million that Fox’s The Exorcist is currently attracting – and the 500,000 that prefer to watch The CW series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

A reboot of the classic 1960s/1970s series, the new Hawaii Five-0 has performed consistently well for CBS since it launched in 2010, usually averaging around 11-12 million viewers a season. At time of writing it is up to 150 episodes, which just goes to show the immense commercial value of the franchise. Keep in mind that it has also been licensed around the world to the likes of AXN Asia, Cuatro in Spain and Rai Due in Italy. It also performs a key role in handing over a big audience to 22.00 drama Blue Bloods.

The first episode of CBS's Macgyver reboot picked up almost 11 million viewers
The first episode of CBS’s Macgyver reboot picked up almost 11 million viewers

With around 25 episodes a year, the show sucks in a lot of writing talent. All told, more than 50 scribes have been involved in writing episodes since the start. One name, however, is ever-present – Peter Lenkov. Lenkov wrote the season one pilot and still writes the first and last episodes of every new season, usually in tandem with another writer such as Eric Guggenheim or Matt Wheeler.

Canadian Lenkov’s credits prior to Hawaii Five-0 included TV series 24 and CSI: NY, plus films RIPD and Demolition Man. He’s also played a central role in the reboot of MacGyver on CBS this year. Although the show hasn’t received a good response from critics, it has rated well enough to secure a full-season order of 22 episodes. If it can keep its ratings at the 7.5-8 million mark then it stands a good chance of getting a second season.

Another writer who has reason to feel pleased with himself this week is Stuart Urban, whose four-part drama The Secret for ITV has just been named best drama at the Royal Television Society NI Programme Awards. The show, which stars James Nesbitt, tells the story of a real-life murderous pact between a dentist and his mistress. Produced by Hat Trick, it is based on Deric Henderson’s non-fiction account of the story, Let This Be Our Secret.

James Nesbitt in The Secret
James Nesbitt in The Secret

Now 58, Urban’s career dates back to Bergerac in the 1980s. He subsequently won a Bafta for An Ungentlemanly Act, his dramatisation of the first 36 hours of The Falklands War. In 1993, Urban created his own production company, Cyclops Vision, under which he produced a range of feature films and documentaries including the black-comedy movie May I Kill U?.

Still on the awards front, it has also been a good week for Anna and Joerg Winger, whose German-language series Deutschland 83 has just been named best drama at the International Emmy Awards in New York. We featured the Wingers in our focus on German writers last week.

The winner of the TV movie/miniseries category was the Kudos/BBC1 production Capital. Based on John Lanchester’s novel Capital, this three-parter was written by Peter Bowker, who has since gone on to have a hit with The A Word, a BBC drama based on an Israeli show.

Walcyr Carrasco
Walcyr Carrasco

Best telenovela went to Globo’s Hidden Truths, written by Walcyr Carrasco and directed by Mauro Mendonça Filho. The show, which aired last year, explores the fashion underworld. Carrasco has been writing telenovelas since the late 1980s. Among his more recent titles was an adaptation of the Jorge Amado novel Gabriela and 2016’s popular Eta Mundo Bom!.

This week has also seen US pay TV channel BBC America greenlight a second season of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, a series based on the books by Douglas Adams. The show has been adapted for TV by Max Landis, an American multi-hyphenate who has written several movie screenplays including Chronicle, American Ultra and Victor Frankenstein. He is also an executive producer of SyFy’s horror anthology series Channel Zero.

Landis is currently writing Bright, a supernatural cop thriller starring Will Smith that has received US$90m backing from Netflix.

Elsewhere, cable network TNT is piloting Snowpiercer, a futuristic thriller based on the 2013 film about a huge train that travels around a post-apocalyptic frozen world with the remnants of humanity on board. The TV version will be written by Josh Friedman, whose credits include Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and War of the Worlds.

Frog Stone
Frog Stone

“Snowpiercer has one of the most original concepts to hit the screen in the last decade, and it’s one that offers numerous opportunities for deeper exploration in a series format,” explained Sarah Aubrey, exec VP of original programming at TNT.

At the other end of the budgetary scale, BBC4 in the UK has ordered a bittersweet comedy about a reserved schoolteacher who agrees to go on a road trip with her mother when she learns that the latter is dying. Entitled Bucket, the show is written by Frog Stone, who will also star alongside Miriam Margolyes. Stone began writing comedy with the Footlights at Cambridge University and has honed her craft writing comedy sketches for Radio 4.

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German writers raise their game

Germany’s leading broadcasters have always spent heavily on TV drama. But until recently there was a feeling that their work was too domestic in character to travel.

Shows like Generation War and Deutschland 83 have changed that perception. This week, we shine a light on the writers who are driving Germany’s TV exports.

kolditzStefan Kolditz studied theatre in Berlin then taught in universities until 2002. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he wrote numerous projects for theatre, film and television. After honing his TV skills with classic German dramas such as Tatort and Polizeiruf 110, he had a major breakthrough in 2014 with the UFA/ZDF miniseries Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter (Generation War). He followed this with an acclaimed adaptation of Bruno Aptiz’s classic novel Naked among Wolves, which aired on ARD and is distributed internationally by Global Screen. More recent projects include the film biopic Paula and TV movies for pubcasters ZDF (Ein Mann Unter Verdacht) and ARD (Mutter Reicht’s Jetzt). He has also managed to fit in two new episodes of Tatort.

annette-hessAnnette Hess studied playwriting in the 1990s in Berlin and then worked at ARD in various executive roles. Her life as a screenwriter began in earnest at the start of the last decade, with TV movie credits for her previous employer. Like Kolditz, she cut her teeth on long-running scripted franchises like SOKO (Cologne) and Polizeiruf 110. However, the big turning point came in 2010 with the acclaimed drama series Weissensee, which has now run for three seasons (one every two years). Since then, she has had another big hit with Ku’damm 56, a ZDF series about female emancipation in the 1950s. The UFA-produced show was good enough to secure a follow up called Ku’damm 59, which is now in the works. In 2016, Hess also wrote episodes of Der Kommissar Und Das Meer, a ZDF crime series that has been running since 2007.

philipp-jessenPhilipp Jessen is a new voice to TV having previously worked as the editor of online newspaper service Stern.de. His TV debut came in 2016 with Giftschrank, which has been described as a cross between House of Cards and Kir Royal. The series, which in English translates roughly as Poison Cabinet, goes behind the scenes at a glossy tabloid-style magazine. Joachim Kosack, producer and MD at UFA Fiction, said of the show: “I have rarely seen a script that is so captivating from the first to the last page. Giftschrank gives a fascinating insight into tabloid journalism. High tension is not only the inner view, but also the ever-recurring question of morality in journalism. You get a sense of how editorial works. It is sharp, entertaining and wise.”

thewingersJoerg & Anna Winger burst onto the scene with Deutschland 83, a Cold War drama that aired on RTL in Germany and has attracted a lot of attention internationally. The two  are now working on a sequel called Deutschland 86, which will premiere exclusively on Amazon Prime Video in Germany in 2018 before airing on RTL. Anna Winger is actually from the US, making her part of a growing trend for foreign writers to get involved in German series (others include Paula Milne and Rachael Turk). She is also developing a series for BBC America set in contemporary Berlin.

dorotheeschon1Dorothee Schön grew up in Bonn then studied film in Munich. She has written a number of TV movies and is another to have contributed to the Tatort juggernaut. After two decades working on TV movies, her next big project is a UFA-produced miniseries for ARD called Charité. A six-parter, the show tells the story of Berlin’s legendary Charité hospital, which many credit with inventing modern medical research. Schon is also lined up to write a miniseries for UFA called The Porsche Saga, which is based on a book about the car manufacturer by Stefan Aust and Thomas Ammann.

tomtykwerTom Tykwer is writing Babylon Berlin with Hendrik Handleoegten and Achim Von Borries for a 2017 launch on Sky Deutschland. The lavish period piece will focus on life in 1920s Berlin. Writer/director Tykwer is best known for his movies, which include Run Lola Run, Perfume and Cloud Atlas. It’s not clear yet whether this is the start of a career in TV or a one-off project.

silberChristoph Silber wrote Rivals Forever – The Sneaker Battle, a period piece about the rivalry between Adi and Rudi Dassler, the founders of Adidas and Puma. A British-German producer, director and writer based in LA, Silber has been working across film and TV since the start of the last decade. Like many of his counterparts, he has written episodes of Tatort. Among his better-known TV movies is Das Wunder von Kärnten (written with Thorsten Wettcke), which tells the true story of a three-year-old girl from Austria, who fell into the lake behind her parents’ house in 1998 and had been underwater for 30 minutes before being found. A young cardiovascular surgeon takes up the seemingly hopeless fight for the young girl’s life, and remarkably saves her. More recently, Silber has been working on the miniseries Honigfrauen, which will see the light of day on ZDF in 2017. Set in 1986, it tells the story of two young women who go on holiday to Hungary’s Lake Balaton from East Germany.

basedow-photo-ardthorsten-janderRolf Basedow is one of a team of writers who scripted Beta Film’s NSU Germany History X, a series about far-right German nationalists produced this year. Active in the TV business since the 1970s, he has contributed to dramas like Tatort and has also written series such as Sperling and the acclaimed 10-part series Im Angesicht des Verbrechens (2010), which looked at the interplay of police and gangsters in Berlin. Following NSU, he is back to writing TV movies including Zielfahnder: Flucht in die Karpaten.

jan-bergerJan Berger had a major international hit with The Physician, which was directed by Philipp Stolzl. The Berger/Stolzl combination has subsequently come to be regarded as something of a dream ticket. The pair reteamed for Beta Film’s updated version of western adventure Winnetou and are also working with UFA Fiction on a TV biopic of magicians Siegfried and Roy.

niki-steinNiki Stein and Hark Bohm are writing Hitler, a high-end drama series from Beta Film that will air on RTL and has been sold to French broadcaster TF1. The 10-hour event series is based on the biography Hitler’s First War by the internationally renowned historian Thomas Weber and will “shed an unprecedented light on the most closely examined figure of modern history,” according to Beta Film. Stein (pictured), another Tatort alumnus, has written numerous TV movies. One of his best-known works is the 2012 TV movie Rommel, about the famed Second World War general. The film attracted controversy, so it will be interesting to see how Stein handles this subject.

marcterjungMarc Terjung and Benedikt Gollhardt created the hit Sat1 comedy series Danni Lowinski, about a hairdresser who becomes an unconventional lawyer. The German series ran for five seasons and spawned a Dutch adaptation. Terjung (pictured) also created comedy series Edel & Starck and has written for SOKO. After working on legal dramedy Danni Lowinski, he wrote Josephine Klick – Allein Unter Cops, about a female police officer who moves from a small town to Berlin, whereupon she encounters resistance from her new colleagues.

friese-jantje-01Jantje Friese recently secured the job of writing Dark, Netflix’s first German original series. The 10-part show, directed by Baran bo Odar, is set in a German town where the disappearance of two children exposes the double lives and fractured relationships among four families. Friese studied in Munich then started her career as a commercials director. Subsequently she went into production and writing. Together with Odar, she wrote the film Who Am I?, a well-received political/cyber thriller.

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Writers go global

Hans Rosenfeld
Hans Rosenfeld is currently writing Marcella

At timing of writing this column, the C21 Drama Summit is taking place at the British Film Institute in London. In among the numerous producers, broadcasters and distributors attending the event, there has also been a star-studded line-up of screenwriters.

In no particular order, the summit attracted the likes of Stephen Poliakoff, Frank Spotnitz, Harlan Coben, Tony Jordan, Sarah Phelps, Paula Milne, Anna Winger, David Farr, Hans Rosenfeld, James Dormer, Charlie Higson, Simon Mirren, Clive Bradley and Chip Johannessen.

What’s interesting about these scribes is the unusual and idiosyncratic journeys that many of them are currently embarked upon. Rosenfeld, for example, is one of the main architects of acclaimed Scandinavian series The Bridge. But now he is writing an English-language crime series set in London, called Marcella. Winger, meanwhile, is an American who lives in Germany with her husband Joerg. Between them they created the well-reviewed period spy drama Deutschland 83, currently airing in Germany on RTL and around the world.

If it seems odd that an American co-wrote D83, then consider that British writer Paula Milne (The Politician’s Wife) has just done something similar, delivering The Same Sky to ZDF in Germany. In this case, she wrote scripts in English that were then translated into German by director Oliver Hirschbiegel. Clive Bradley, meanwhile, is an English screenwriter who has just finished working as the co-writer on Trapped, a pan-European coproduction set in snowy Iceland.

Deutschland 83
Deutschland 83, created by married team Joerg and Anna Winger

Harlan Coben, a novelist, has just written his first TV drama, The Five, in collaboration with Danny Brocklehurst (Shameless, Clocking Off). Farr, meanwhile, is a playwright adapting a John Le Carre novel The Night Manager for TV. In one of his anecdotes at the Summit, Farr talked of meeting Le Carre in a north London pub and having to pluck up the courage to tell the great man the last 100 pages of his novel wouldn’t work on TV. Sarah Phelps must have felt just as nervous when she met Hilary Strong of Agatha Christie Ltd to discuss how she would go about adapting Christie’s classic novel And Then There Were None.

Poliakoff’s session was enlightening, providing an insight into the way he has honed his skills as a writer-director. While many would think of him first and foremost as a playwright and screenwriter, Poliakoff spent much of his session discussing the directorial dimension of his latest project Close to the Enemy. Casting, rigorous rehearsals and location selection were as significant to the realisation of Poliakoff’s vision of the series as story and dialogue.

Stephen Polliakoff
Stephen Polliakoff is working on Close to the Enemy

Frank Spotnitz, an American residing in Europe, was at the summit to discuss his latest project for Amazon, The Man in the High Castle, while Chip Johannessen provided insight into the adaptation of Israeli show Prisoners of War into his hit series Homeland. Simon Mirren was in town to talk about the creation of Versailles, the English-language, French production of a quintessentially French subject. That seems a long way from where his career started – as a writer on Casualty.

So what does all the above tell us? Well, it shows that the idea of the writer as a solitary creature is something of a myth. While part of the job inevitably involves shutting the study door and blocking out distractions, just as much is dependent on a willingness and ability to interact with other parts of the production chain.

At the same time, the shift towards international coproduction (in order to realise ambitious creative ideas) means writers have to be surefooted on the international stage. It’s noteworthy just how many of the above scribes have had to collaborate across borders or set scenes abroad. Milne talked about watching rushes of The Same Sky after her words had been translated in German, and having to make a judgement on whether the emotional impact of the dialogue had survived the shift to a new language. Rosenfeld, meanwhile, discussed the support he needed to ensure Marcella’s London life was authentic.

Chip Johannssen
Chip Johannssen turned Prisoners of War into Homeland for Showtime

Another theme throughout the summit has been the way the current era of ambitious international drama production allows writers to cut loose creatively. Farr talked about how writers used to be scared to set a scene outside – let alone in a foreign country. But this concern has been blown away as dramas head for increasingly exotic climes.

This freedom is also evident in the range of literary reimaginings currently on show. Charlie Higson’s interpretation of Jekyll and Hyde (in which he injects his own mythology), Tony Jordan’s literary mash-up Dickensian and James Dormer’s reworking of the Beowulf saga are all examples of how traditional budgeting and commissioning constraints have fallen away.

Of course, a key implication of the above is that writers need to be trusted to deliver against bold objectives. And this is creating a challenge for the scripted business. Understandably, the broadcasters and distributors that put up millions of dollars to make drama projects a reality are anxious to ensure they work with proven writers. This is causing a logjam, with the best writers often booked up for years to come.

While this is good news for those writers who are in demand, the clear message is that the industry needs to improve the flow of new writing talent coming through. C21 and Red Planet are both playing their part with scriptwriting competitions, but there needs to be a more formal solution to this issue if the drama business is to keep up its extraordinary creative momentum.

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Deutschland duo discuss national differences

Two members of the creative team behind German Cold War thriller Deutschland 83 have revealed all about working between television markets in Germany and the US. Michael Pickard reports.

On the back of scripts mostly written by Anna Winger alone, Deutschland 83 became the first ever German-language series to air on a US network when it debuted earlier this year – yet the co-creator says she prefers working alongside other writers.

The show, which is produced by UFA Fiction for RTL, is described as a suspenseful coming-of-age story set against the real culture wars and political events of Germany in the 1980s.

Married duo Joerg and Anna Winger co-created Deutschland 83
Married duo Joerg and Anna Winger co-created Deutschland 83

The story follows Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay, pictured above) as a 24-year-old East Germany native who is sent to the West as an undercover spy for the Stasi foreign service. Hiding in plain sight in the West German army, he must gather the secrets of NATO military strategy.

“The whole development was extremely condensed,” explains Winger, an American novelist who worked alongside her husband, German producer Joerg Winger, to bring the series to life. “I started writing the pilot just before Christmas 2013 and we finished shooting just before Christmas 2014. One year, soup to nuts.

“German TV isn’t set up financially to support an American-style writers room, where writers work full-time on a show. Four other writers came on after I had written the pilot and the season arc, all friends: Steve Bailie, Andrea Willson, Ralph Martin and Georg Hartmann. We brainstormed together for about a week, which was great. Then each of them wrote one episode and I wrote the other four. After a few drafts, I took over all the scripts to bring the season together into one voice. Then the two directors came on board as we started to prepare for production.

“Joerg was involved from day one, of course. He’s a really experienced showrunner, so I couldn’t have had a better partner my first time out. This project has been a great collaboration for the two of us. And because I wrote the original scripts in English, he did the German polish.”

The show launched on SundanceTV in the US last month
The show launched on SundanceTV in the US last month

In future, however, Winger says she would much rather work with a writers room, where she enjoys the sense of collaboration.

“I have my writing office in the former Tempelhof airport terminal – the (former) fourth biggest building in the world – where sometimes I don’t see anyone else for a week,” she says. “So I loved working with other people on this project: producers, directors, actors and especially the other writers.

“If budget would allow for it, I would always work with a writers room. Stories get so much richer through collaboration.”

Meanwhile, Edward Berger, who directed the first five episodes of Deutschland 83, has opened up about the differences between German and US television.

“In Germany, television production has traditionally been very focused on 90-minute movies,” he says. “The idea of serialised drama that was started in the US was completely overslept by the German TV industry. I remember situations from just a few years ago, where we tried to pitch an idea for a series with a horizontal storyline, and the producers and networks kept saying, ‘This doesn’t work in Germany. People want a finished plot at the end of the night. They don’t want to worry about how it continues.’

Berger: 'I really liked the characters – they seemed very real and vivid'
Berger: ‘I really liked the characters – they seemed very real and vivid’

“All the while shows from Denmark, Sweden, England and the US were having massive success around the globe. I couldn’t believe it. So Deutschland 83 is part of a fairly new development in German TV.

Writer/director Berger joined the series at a very early stage after he was contacted by Joerg Winger. He adds: “I really liked the characters – they seemed very real and vivid to me. So I said yes, and from then on we had continuous story meetings while Anna kept writing the scripts.

“It’s great to have a writer whose style you can trust. I can sit back and relax and wait until I get the next draft to critique. I can keep my distance and really judge the script from an outside perspective. When I write and direct, the danger is that I get too close to the subject matter. What I can’t stand, however, is to sit around and wait for that writer to appear. So, in the meantime when I don’t meet someone like Anna, I spend my time writing.”

FremantleMedia International secured the landmark deal to send Deutschland 83 to SundanceTV, which launched the eight-part series to US viewers on June 17.

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