When a series of bombings and cyber attacks hit Stockholm, the Swedish Secret Service, SÄPO, struggles to find the organisation responsible. Meanwhile, having just returned home after years of Navy SEAL training, Carl Hamilton rejoins SÄPO’s elite black-ops division while also being identified as a possible suspect.
Swedish 10-part drama Agent Hamilton follows the eponymous spy and agent Kristin Ek as they discover there are darker forces at work, with an organisation taking advantage of fake news, xenophobia and terrorism in order to turn a profit. As loyalties are put to the test, Hamilton is forced to choose what future is best for his country.
In this DQTV interview, star Jakob Oftebro, who plays Hamilton, and director Erik Leijonborg reveal how Jan Gillou’s literary agent was given a modern update for the series, which introduces viewers to the character by following him on his first mission.
Oftebro talks about how the series shows both the professional and personal aspects of his character, while Leijonborg discusses the filming techniques he used to play with the drama’s visual style.
Agent Hamilton is produced by Dramacorp Pampas Studios and Kärnfilm in coproduction with TV4, C-More, Beta Film and ZDF, in association with ZDF Enterprises.
DQ lands in Stockholm to find a city-centre park taken over by filming for spy action thriller Agent Hamilton. The cast and creative team reveal their screen ambitions for Jan Guillou’s iconic literary character.
It’s lunchtime in Kungsträdgården, a tree-lined park in central Stockholm that is surrounded by outdoor cafés and lies in the shadow of the city’s opera house, close to the water that flows between the many islands that make up the Swedish capital.
On this bright summer’s day in August, it’s hard to see where the crowds of onlookers end and the extras filming 10-part Swedish action thriller Agent Hamilton begin. But once the cameras are rolling, it quickly becomes clear.
In a scene from the opening episode, Swedish interior minister Sissela Lindgren (played by Anna Sise) is giving a speech during the annual May Day protests when word spreads of a bomb going off a few blocks away. Urged to leave immediately, she stands by as her assistant races towards the politician’s car. It’s then that a second bomb detonates in the vehicle, leaving several dead and countless bystanders injured.
On set beside a large stage, dozens of extras are standing in their first positions, some holding bags and others grasping bright red balloons, their faces stiff with anticipation. Then when a crew member using a loudspeaker calls ‘Action,’ they all hurtle off in different directions, replicating the chaos and panic that spreads after a terrorist atrocity.
A small girl, her face covered in blood, sits next to her mother, who is lying motionless on the pavement. Other ‘victims’ lie in piles of shattered glass, their figures scattered around the smouldering remains of a black Volvo, its roof and bonnet ripped apart by the force of the blast.
As the panic continues, flashing lights from a number of arriving police cars appear in the distance. Then Jakob Oftebro, in character as Hamilton, slowly walks past the wreckage as the camera captures him surveying the devastation.
In all, more than 100 extras are involved in the set piece, with up to 200 in total filling this corner section of Kungsträdgården. In between takes, make-up artists are reapplying scars and wounds with tubes of fake blood.
Crew members are discussing whether one extra should continue to hold their balloon as they flee from the blast, while others are preparing to set an extra on fire as the camera pans around the still-burning car for a close-up on the minister cradling the body of her aide.
It’s a surreal and unsettling experience to be watching these events unfold, from the panic-stricken crowd’s screams (more will be added in post-production) to the sight of young children covered in blood and bodies lying motionless on the floor. As Oftebro tells DQ during a break in filming: “It’s horrifying, isn’t it?”
Agent Hamilton is based on Jan Guillou’s bestselling Carl Hamilton spy novels, which have become Sweden’s most iconic literary property since their debut in 1986. Though the books are set during the Cold War, the series brings the lead character into the present and plunges him in the middle of a “Cold War 2.0” between Russia and the US in the heart of Northern Europe.
Following a series of bombings and cyber attacks in Stockholm, the Swedish Secret Service, SÄPO, is struggling to find those responsible. Nobody knows Carl Hamilton has returned home and enlisted in SÄPO’s black-ops division following years of Navy SEAL training in the US, but after the attacks, he is identified as a possible suspect by agent Kristin Ek.
As they enter a cat-and-mouse chase to uncover the truth behind the attacks, they find darker forces at work, testing Hamilton’s loyalties to his country and exposing an organisation that is exploiting fake news, xenophobia and terrorism to turn a profit.
Starring alongside Oftebro (Below the Surface) are former Wallander duo Nina Zanjani and Krister Henriksson as Kristin and SÄPO boss DG respectively, plus Rowena King (Criminal Minds) and Jörgen Thorsson.
Executive producer Patrick Nebout (Midnight Sun) secured the rights to the Hamilton novels in 2016 after Guillou gave his blessing to a modern adaptation. The author created the character based on his knowledge of Swedish and international intelligence agencies, having spent a year in prison for espionage after helping to expose a covert spy group.
It’s not the first time Hamilton has been adapted for the screen, with Stellan Skarsgård and Peter Haber among those to have previously portrayed the character, who has been described as Sweden’s James Bond. But despite the flattering comparison, given 007’s lasting success on the big screen, Nebout says Hamilton is more like Jason Bourne if he were in Homeland, referring to the book-to-screen spy made famous by Matt Damon and US premium cablenet Showtime’s long-running espionage series.
“He’s very streetwise. He’s young. It’s closer to Homeland than a typical James Bond story, but you have all the same elements,” Nebout says of Hamilton. “We have action, we have a very character-driven story and we are in different locations. We are in Sweden, Russia, Germany and the Middle East. That’s where the Jason Bourne and James Bond comparisons can be made.
“There’s also a very realistic French show called Le Bureau des Légendes. We’re somewhere in the middle. We’re not completely in the naturalistic environment of Le Bureau des Légendes and we’re not in the heightened ‘fantasy’ world of James Bond.”
Inspired by movies from the 1970s including Three Days of the Condor and Marathon Man, Nebout says the aim from the outset was to create a very modern and ambitious Nordic spy thriller. Though as a result of setting the show in the present, little remains from the books except the main characters and the setup of Hamilton’s Navy SEAL training.
“The Hamilton movies were quite black and white in the sense that there were bad guys and good guys, but we wanted to be much more complex, especially now with the ‘Cold War’ situation. It’s a very blurry universe,” Nebout says. “The first season really brings something accurate and relevant to today’s world, in terms of how the corporate world can also have alliances with terrorists and how this mixes together.
“Then you have someone like Hamilton, who starts as someone very straightforward in his notions of good and bad but comes to understand he’s being used by people with a very different agenda. So it’s a journey of someone who starts off very idealistic in his views and starts peeling things back layer by layer until he understands that everything is not what he thought it was.”
Agent Hamilton is the latest Nordic drama to steer away from the popular noir detective shows that have become synonymous with the region. The series, produced by Dramacorp-Pampas Studios, also uses an authentic blend of languages depending on where the story moves, featuring Swedish, Russian and Arabic alongside English.
Behind the camera is conceptual director Erik Leijonborg, who has shown an ability to handle large-scale action on Netflix historical series The Last Kingdom and more intimate character drama with Tjockare än Vatten (Thicker Than Water).
“That’s such a lovely part of directing,” he says. “I can be with two extremely good actors doing a love scene and the next day I’m in Morocco shooting an action scene with special effects and stunts. The combination is so fun. The crucial part is telling a story but in different ways. If I have a big explosion in one of the major parks in Sweden, with a lot of tension and special effects, then we can have a scene afterwards where Hamilton’s just sitting on a bed.”
The director says a key part of the show is delving deep into the characters to ensure they drive the plot, not the other way around. “There’s more than solving the case and killing the enemy,” he says. “We also need to ask how to feel afterwards.
“I’m like a vampire – I need to live off the characters’ emotions and make them come alive. It’s fun and stimulating to film because it’s very modern, dramatic and emotional. We can have those heroic moments but I’m still totally grounded in realistic filmmaking. That’s the only thing I know; I don’t know anything else, so here I am challenged to do some more dramatic scenes. I call my shooting style ‘dramatic realism.’ It’s still very realistic but very dramatic.”
Leijonborg, who shares directing duties with Lisa Farzaneh and Per Hanefjord, also sat in on the writers room with head scribe Petter S Rosenlund (The Saboteurs), who was a fan of Guillou’s novels. Rosenlund says the biggest challenge in adapting them was coming to terms with the social and political changes in the 30-plus years since they were first published.
“It’s based on the conflict between the military and police in Guillou’s books – we have this conflict between the secret police and secret military agents,” says Rosenlund.
“When it comes to who is who and who’s dealing with what, then we have this conflict. So Kristin understands something is happening on the military side and that Hamilton belongs to this super-secret department, which is created by DG.”
Zanjani’s Kristin, a mother who must juggle the demands of her job with parenthood, is key to grounding the series. “She’s the one who tries to answer the question, ‘How does a Swedish agent fit into society?’ She will be the one trying to uncover Hamilton’s existence and put it into daylight,” the actor says of her character.
“The Swedish secret police can’t allow people to do some of the things he’s involved with. She’s the very skilled and smart police officer who starts to investigate some of the strange things that have been happening after the attack on Stockholm, so she tries to find who is behind it. [She and Hamilton] do the same thing, so they’re crossing each other.”
Zanjani hadn’t read any of the Hamilton books before accepting the role, which was created for the series. In any case, she believes “it’s better not to know [what happens in the books] because it makes you more free to find your character and make it your own,” she says. “But we all feel free in that sense. It’s the first time we’re doing it [in a contemporary setting], even though it existed before. It’s such a modern story so it makes us newly born.”
Meanwhile, Henriksson says he defined DG through the character’s relationship with Hamilton, whom he describes as being like the son DG never had. “That is a big problem. It makes relations very complicated – it’s love, it’s hate, it’s respect,” he notes.
The actor says he was inspired to join the series as Hamilton is an “iconic figure” in Sweden, much like Wallander, the fellow literary character Henriksson played on screen in more than 30 feature-length episodes over eight years until 2013. “Not everyone in Sweden has read the books but they think they know who he is,” he adds. “That’s why I’m here.”
Despite working in multiple languages in places around the world, Nebout says discussions around Agent Hamilton have always focused on the story to ensure the series has both the depth of character and complexity of plot to satisfy audiences. “That should be the focus for all producers and series,” he says. “It’s really about the script, the characters and being able to relate to those characters. Even if you hate Hamilton, it’s also about relating to him on the macro level and micro level.”
The series will debut on Scandi streamer C More before airing in Sweden on TV4. Germany’s ZDF, in association with ZDF Enterprises, is a coproducer alongside distributor Beta Film, which has already placed the series with Norway’s TV2, Denmark’s DR and Finland’s MTV3.
Having secured a two-season commitment for the show upfront, Nebout says plans are already underway for the next stage of the story. Combining impressive scale and spectacle with complex, modern-day themes, Agent Hamilton looks set to breathe new life into Guillou’s character and create an iconic spy for a new generation.
Carl Hamilton has featured in more than a dozen literary outings and several screen adaptations. But much like Daniel Craig’s first outing as James Bond in 2006’s Casino Royale, this new series takes the eponymous spy right back to the beginning, following him on his first mission.
In Agent Hamilton, little remains of Jan Guillou’s Cold War-set novels except the leading character, with the series opening just as the spy returns home to Sweden after completing training in the US with the Navy SEALs.
“He’s an activist, politically active, military trained and very capable of doing different stuff, technologically, intellectually and physically,” actor Jakob Oftebro (right) says of his character. “So he’s definitely different. He’s not that into gadgets or expensive cars. The series asks how you can be a secret agent and how it works to be in the military in a country that has traditionally been neutral. It’s super interesting to try to get into that psyche and find the righteousness in being a secret agent in Sweden nowadays.”
Oftebro’s preparation involved talking with current and former military veterans, secret agents, Navy SEALs and bodyguards, as well as plenty of physical training. But the star’s primary focus has been on finding Hamilton’s humanity, aided by speaking to people about how this kind of job can affect your life and mental health.
“I’m trying to find the human in the character and being a special agent, not only seeing someone as super cool doing super-intelligent stuff,” he explains. “We’re starting this story days after he arrives back home, so I’m trying to imagine being born in Stockholm and then leaving to train at the Navy SEAL academy and then coming back to Stockholm to be a secret agent. It’s quite a difficult job. Stockholm is not the biggest city in the world – obviously you would know people, so how does it work? How do you infiltrate? And how do you work as a secret agent in the city where you were born and raised?
“I think a lot of people can relate to that, if you’ve studied abroad or lived abroad and then returned. It’s always strange. You will eventually meet the teenage version of yourself or the child or have old memories. But you have to break loose from that and think, ‘I’m a secret agent now.’ It’s also difficult in a country that is so pacifistic and against war.”
After an on-set injury earlier this year that put production on hold, Oftebro recovered to take his place in front of the camera, which he says has been a huge honour.
“I have a dramatic background so after doing a couple of the action scenes, it’s nice to have a scene where you can see that he’s a human being and not a machine,” he continues. “The most fun has been when Hamilton and Kristin [Nina Zanjani] finally sit down together and the conflict comes to the surface. Everybody’s just human. Otherwise, you’re a psychopath. What’s interesting is the question of whether Hamilton is a psychopath. I really enjoy the character. I love doing this.”
Fritz Lang’s classic thriller M is reimagined for television by David Schalko in M: Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder (A City Hunts a Murderer). DQ met the director and the cast of the unsettling six-parter on set in Vienna.
At the time of its original release, Fritz Lang’s iconic film M was a groundbreaking piece of cinema that mixed social drama, police procedural, the criminal underworld and the hunt for a serial killer.
As such, it’s unsurprising that this 1931 classic, made during the German Expressionism period and one of the first German ‘talkies,’ is often cited as the inspiration for modern television genres. And it’s perhaps equally perplexing that there hasn’t been a television adaptation of M – until now.
M: Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder (M: A City Hunts a Murderer) isn’t a strict adaptation, however. Instead, creator and director David Schalko (Braunschlag, Alte Geld) has reimagined Lang’s feature, which saw the police, a gang of criminals, the press and other members of society search for Peter Lorre’s child killer – a character not regarded simply as a monster but as a product of the society in which he has grown up.
For M: A City Hunts a Murderer, the film’s themes have been transplanted from 1930s Berlin to modern-day Vienna, which serves as the backdrop to this series co-commissioned by Austrian public broadcaster ORF and German pay TV network RTL Crime. Produced by John Lueftner for Superfilm, it is distributed internationally by Beta Film and is due to air this year. The series will have its premiere at Berlinale’s Drama Series Days event this month.
The sinister six-part thriller, written by Schalko and his wife Evi Romen, sees a capital confronted with a series of child murders, transforming the open and lively city into a society under total surveillance.
At first, the children disappear – but then bodies start to turn up, leading to a tabloid frenzy over the crime spree and the lack of action by the police. But while the ambitious Minister for the Interior tries to make his mark, the criminal underworld also steps up its search for the killer.
The Minister is busy scheming when DQ visits the M set on a bright and sunny day of filming inside the dazzling foyer of Vienna University’s library and learning centre. Like a scene from The West Wing, he is walking and talking with The Publisher in an attempt to use the media to spread fear through the city and get a new security law passed.
“How do you remake M? Firstly, why the hell do you want to remake M? If you want to remake a masterpiece, you need a really good reason to do it,” says Klaus Lintschinger, head of television features at ORF, answering the question of why no one has done it before. However, he continues, ORF and RTL Crime did have a good reason for doing it, but only in a contemporary setting.
“David likes storytelling with a lot of characters and a lot of storylines, so the template of M offered him an opportunity to tell a really big story that affects us today,” Lintschinger explains. “It’s essentially the story of how politics tries to do the right thing but ends up doing something catastrophic. I never saw it as a remake and I never saw it as a sequel. David would refer to it as a homage, but that’s not right either. It’s a re-reading of it.”
Moving the drama to Vienna was a natural choice for Austrian filmmaker Schalko, though it was important the limited series wasn’t strictly a Viennese show once RTL Crime came on board, in what is the channel’s first original production. The German network had been looking for the right project and the “unique” M provided the right platform.
“It’s one of the best movies ever made, so if you start original production, you should start with a bang, you should start big,” says Klaus Holtmann, RTL’s executive VP of digital channels. “We couldn’t resist doing it.”
Securing rights to Lang’s film proved to be the trickiest hurdle to overcome in development, with financing from the broadcasters supported by Beta Film and tax incentives offered in Vienna and Austria.
Both Lintschinger and Holtmann say they signed up at the pitch stage, drawn to working with Schalko and his take on M while also understanding that they wouldn’t be able to make wide-scale changes to his vision. “It was a very creative process but if you commit to something like M, you can’t turn it into a telenovela,” Holtmann notes. “It’s still M and the core and soul is still there, and that’s why we shared the same vision.”
That vision doesn’t include a tourist’s romantic view of Vienna. Instead, the focus is on the dark side of the city and the implications of a child killer roaming the streets.
The 14-week shoot certainly embraced the influence of German Expressionism on Lang’s original, utilising unusual camera angles and shadows on the snowy landscape, often creating an atmosphere that makes it appear as if filming took place on a sound stage as opposed to on location.
Early footage of the series suggests a deeply dark and creepy tone. What adds to the eerie and unsettling style is that, like Lang’s film, none of the characters have names. They are only referred to by their job titles or roles in society, which actor Moritz Bleibtreu says mirrors what is going on in contemporary society.
“For people with power, whether it’s in business or politics or the press, there’s a big lack of empathy going on right now,” says Bleibtreu, who plays The Publisher. “It’s not about the people, it’s about the mechanisms of power and how to use them. It’s about the fact that a president isn’t simply elected, there are people who get them to that point – whether they write about them or some guy from Russia is pushing buttons and making people believe this guy is the right guy. There are always people in the background who make these things happen.
“He’s one of those guys,” Bleibtreu says of his character. “He wants power. It’s the only agenda these people have. Fuck money, money is not interesting. Power is interesting. To be able to do whatever you want, that’s power. You need money as a tool but that’s not the goal. The goal is power. That’s what makes them so dangerous and so hateable.”
Bela B Felsenheimer, an actor and musician known as the drummer in German band Die Ärtze, plays The Mystic, a rich man who is drawn into the police investigation with an apparent will to help the parents, though it’s clear he has questionable motives. “He has his own agenda,” Felsenheimer reveals. “He thinks he’s the chosen one, and he’s connected to the murder. This connection is pretty important, but I can’t reveal too much. He’s living in an all-white apartment with dolls dressed in clothes he got from the missing children, so he’s a creepy character.”
A self-confessed fan of Schalko’s work, Felsenheimer also admits to having watched Lang’s M more than 10 times – and then again when he got the part. “My character isn’t there in the film; there’s a strange guy mentioned in one scene but he doesn’t appear. Then I got the scripts and they were the most brilliant scripts I’ve ever read,” he says, comparing Schalko to Quentin Tarantino. “Every single person, even a bystander on the street, has got their own story and it’s interesting. They’re not there just to fill a space. It’s a really great TV event.”
Meanwhile, Lars Eidinger and Verena Altenberger play the parents of the first murder victim. Naturally, their relationship is put under incredible strain by the loss of their daughter, and Eidinger says the way they react, in keeping with the tone of the series, is unnatural.
“David tries to ask what it means for the couple to lose the child, but more as a metaphor. They lose their future and their past,” he explains. “It’s a very complex structure and it has several layers that work metaphorically, but it is not very naturalistic. This is something I really like. They face everyday problems, but to deal with them on a different artistic level is, for me, much more inspiring.
“I was concentrating on being as truthful as possible to the moment when someone tells you your child is dead. I’m not going into the first cliche when you are crying because usually it’s not like this. Those parents become a bit insane – sometimes it means something in their lives changes so they cannot continue in the way they did, and sometimes it turns their world upside down. This is what the series is about.”
Altenberger says that while the initial focus is on the parents in the aftermath of their daughter’s murder, each episode expands to bring more characters into focus, while her own character’s darker side also emerges.
“Nobody is good or bad. Everybody is both, and sometimes that can change within a human life,” she explains. “I look for the balance in both sides of my character, and in every character in the show, to see how they react to each other. Every tiny little piece of the script matters.
“I’m pretty sure the scripts fit our society today. It’s even more than a general fear, it’s a hysterical way of accusing each other with the media and questioning something.”
As Shopgirl, Marleen Lohse reveals her character is carrying “a very deep and dark secret.” She works in a children’s store selling clothes, until she falls in love with one of the parents of the murdered children and finds a way to integrate herself into their family.
From the key characters to the bit-part players, each is “really fighting for something, and that makes it so special,” Lohse says. “Every scene has big moments. It’s about something bigger – the whole of society. Luckily I don’t carry this woman with me, but this project makes me think a lot.”
David Schalko’s tribute to a German classic
When David Schalko revisited Fritz Lang’s M four years ago, he found himself unable to forget it. But rather than simply remake the classic film for the small screen, he wanted to completely update it and add new elements to the story, such as social media, that would change the way it would be told.
He was also interested in exploring what he refers to as a “crisis” in contemporary Western democracy, considering M was released three years before the Nazis secured power in Germany.
“That was the idea,” Schalko says, “and also that there’s no main role or main actor – the town is the main thing. It’s something that’s very good for the series because Fritz Lang didn’t have the time to tell all the stories. Now we have the chance to tell it all, so we have more depth to the story and the characters.”
He describes the series as a puzzle that was particularly difficult to solve due to the fact that there is no protagonist at the heart of the story. Each episode also features different characters, offering new angles and perspectives on the story.
“It’s dark,” Schalko says. “We tried to make associations to German Expressionism, so you have the feeling of some things filmed in the studio with shadows, but it’s also a mixture of naturalism, which makes its own style. We hope it’s something very individual.
“That’s why I say it’s a tribute. The thing is not to be in a tennis match with Fritz Lang but to use this idea in the 21st century. It’s really a tribute to Fritz Lang’s work because I’m a big admirer. And if it’s half as good as the original, I’m happy.”
The large number of characters presented challenges in terms of both writing and the shooting process. But ultimately, Schalko says, the story isn’t about them but the kind of city they live in.
“It’s about how the children are killed but it’s not about violence,” he adds. “It’s not about how the killer is caught or who did it. It’s about the city itself. It’s not a crime story.”
Directing brothers Jorge and Alberto Sánchez-Cabezudo talk about the inspiration behind Spanish thriller La Zona (The Zone), an eight-part drama that follows the hunt for a murderer three years after a catastrophic nuclear tragedy.
Deadly nuclear disasters of the kind that have become synonymous with locations such as Chernobyl and Fukushima have all the ingredients for compelling television drama. Death, tragedy, environmental devastation and the displacement of hundreds, if not thousands, of people can inspire a wealth of stories, not forgetting the chance to recreate catastrophic explosions and the events that precede them.
One such series currently in production is the aptly titled Chernobyl, the first coproduction between HBO and Sky Atlantic. Starring Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård and Emily Watson, it dramatises the true story of one of the worst man-made disasters in history and the people who tried to save Europe from tragedy in April 1986.
The two disasters were also the inspiration for Spanish drama La Zona (The Zone), though this series transplanted the cause and effects of an explosion to a fictional setting in northern Spain.
The eight-part series, commissioned by Spanish pay TV platform Movistar, follows what happens after a nuclear power plant meltdown leads to the creation of a contaminated no-go area and leaves the nearby provincial city and its inhabitants in a state of shock and mourning. One of the victims is police inspector Hector Uria (Eduard Fernández)’s 20-year-old son Fede.
Three years after the event, the discovery of a mutilated body in a warehouse and a spate of other mysterious killings take Hector’s search for the murderer deep into the contamination zone, where he uncovers a smuggling racket controlled by the company in charge of the clean-up.
As a survivor, he must also confront the demons of his past – the same demons also haunting doctor and public health official Julia (Alexandra Jiménez), Hector’s wife Marta (Emma Suárez) and his daughter Ester (Marina Salas).
The police thriller, created and directed by brothers Jorge and Alberto Sánchez-Cabezudo (Crematorium, Grand Hotel), is produced by Movistar in collaboration with Kubik Films, Feelgood Media, Kowalski Films and distributor Beta Film.
“It’s something mysterious, very intense and exciting,” Alberto says of the idea behind La Zona. “We work a lot in documentaries so we like to go deep into the news. We were about to pitch the project but we had to stop because of Fukushima [in March 2011] so we put the project aside.
“Then two years ago we asked what was happening with Fukushima and it was really amazing. We discovered a lot of things were going on and it was about normal people. So we found a lot of interesting things to add to the project.”
The brothers admit their working relationship is “complicated.” Alberto says: “We work together so we design the production, the settings, the casting, then when it’s time to shoot, Jorge directs and I’m more like an executive producer, supervising the whole show.”
They also write together, taking half the episodes each and adding lots of visual elements to the scripts so their vision is on paper before shooting starts. La Zona is a thriller at its heart but it’s also incredibly atmospheric.
“There’s a lot of silence, a lot of scenes without dialogue,” Jorge notes. “We also have a lot of perspective, but it’s not just one point of view; it’s many, of the same thing sometimes. It’s very interesting to shoot that way because you have one main character but, in the second chapter, you have another point of view, and again in chapter five. It’s very funny to play with what the audience knows about the characters and what the characters know about the investigation. It plays on the tension.”
The murder investigation is at the heart of the story, with Hector on the hunt for a killer. “The special thing about this detective is he’s a victim too, so we felt very interested in this paradox,” Alberto says. “He has to contain the rage of the people but also he’s a victim, so he has to feel that grief.”
Jorge continues: “That aspect is very strong and also very emotional – there are two faces to the same character.”
Unsurprisingly for such an ambitious series, there were notable challenges – not least in finding the location for the fictional power plant and its vast no-go perimeter.
“We shot in more than 160 locations, all in natural locations,” Alberto reveals. “Our focus was on the north of Spain, in Asturias. It’s very green and the nature is amazing but it also has industries that are abandoned, like a ghost, in the middle of nature, so that feeling was very important for us. It was a challenge to produce and have so many locations, so we had two units.”
Finding the perfect locations, with many disused buildings that could simultaneously be described as contaminated and abandoned, also meant the need for building sets was vastly reduced.
“From the beginning, the important thing was to get this local and realistic aspect of the aftermath,” Alberto says. “People had to believe from the start that something like that happened in Spain. We started scouting right from when we were writing so we could add that nature, landscapes and places into the script.”
The Sánchez-Cabezudo brothers expect to return to the thriller genre in the future, but say their future projects will also continue to tackle contemporary social issues and draw inspiration from real events.
For now, La Zona continues to pick up international admirers. Earlier this month the show was taken by US premium cablenet Starz, while Germany’s ZDF acquired it last October. Movistar owner Telefonica, meanwhile, secured the series – its first original drama – for its pay TV services in Poland and Latin America.
The true story of Italian prosecutor and ‘Mafia hunter’ Alfonso Sabella is dramatised in Sicilian crime thriller Il Cacciatore (The Hunter). Executive producers Michele Zatta and Ferdinand Dohna reveal the story behind the series.
It’s a story that has all the hallmarks of a classic Mafia drama. Rival families fight for control of the streets of Sicily until an ambitious young prosecutor proves he is willing to stand up for the many innocents caught up in decades of bloodshed.
Yet the premise of Il Cacciatore (The Hunter) is one entirely based on fact. Based on prosecutor Alfonso Sabella’s book Cacciatore di Mafiosi, it charts the author’s real-life war against the Mafia bosses and the period known as “hunting season” that led to more than 300 arrests.
Set in Palermo in 1993, the war between two Mafia clans is spiralling out of control when Saverio Barone, a young prosecutor played by Francesco Montanari (Romanzo Criminale), uses his distinct skills and a succession of brilliant hunches, spectacular raids and front-page arrests to return law and order to the city.
The 12-part series is produced by Cross Productions and distributor Beta Film in partnership with Rai Fiction, which airs the series on Rai Due. It has its international premiere as part of CanneSeries this week.
“It started from the book, written by Sabella. He is a fantastic prosecutor,” explains Michele Zatta, commissioning editor at Rai Fiction. “He’s one of our superheroes. He personally caught hundreds of Mafiosi at the time when there was a war between the Mafia and the Italian state. It was a civil war with hundreds of dead.”
Sabella faced reprisals and intimidation during his campaign, and at one point had a bomb planted in front of his house. It all makes for an intoxicating story that is perfect material for a long-form television drama.
The development began when Rosario Rinaldo, head of Cross Productions, took Sabella’s book to Eleonora Andreatta, the director of Rai Fiction. “She found that not only was Sabella a fantastic prosecutor but he was a fantastic storyteller so she fell in love with this book,” Zatta says. “Sabella had two young writers, Marcello Izzo and Silvia Ebruel, who were attached to the project and they’ve never written anything before. They brought a 40-page treatment, we read them and thought they were fantastic so we developed it together with Cross Productions and these two writers. So it got started two years ago.”
Zatta describes the writing process as rapid, with scene outlines quickly followed up by fully formed scripts. Other creative talents were also brought to the project, including writer Fabio Paladini and directors Stefano Lodovichi and Davide Marengo, who helmed six episodes each.
“This fits perfectly with the new editorial line of Rai Duo. It’s pushing the borders and trying to have young blood, young talent, that speaks to an international audience,” Zatta explains. “The director of the first six episodes, Stefano, is a highly talented director who has never done television before. He’s just done two feature films. This is how much we believe in newcomers – they have a lot of talent. But to be appealing to a young audience, it’s good to have a young staff that’s involved in the organisation.”
From the coast to the countryside and the city, Il Cacciatore mixes the luscious landscapes of Sicily with dark, brooding settings and bloody violence to stunning effect. Describing the filmmaking style as “innovative,” Zatta says: “The first episode is stunning. The photography, the acting, the directing… You might say, ‘Again a Mafia story,’ but this story has never been told before.
“It’s different from other Mafia stories because it’s told from different points of view. Alfonso Sabella had such an insight into the Mafia, unlike anybody else, and we also tell this story from the Mafiosi point of view and we show their domestic lives, their love stories and what is going on between them.”
Other leading characters include Leoluca Bagarella (played by David Coco) and brothers Giovanni and Enzo Brusca (Edoardo Pesce and Alessio Praticò, respectively).
“The other thing is that our prosecutor is a hero, obviously, but he’s not the usual kind of prosecutor you would expect,” Zatta says. “He’s very arrogant, he thinks he’s the best and the story starts with him wanting to take his superior’s job. He comes and says, ‘I’m better than you, I take your chair, I take your desk.’ So he’s not nice a guy, he’s very arrogant and full of power, but we love him nevertheless because he’s on the right side.”
Set entirely on location in Sicily, the backdrop also separates the series from other mafia dramas that usually set the action on the mainland. “The Sicilian Mafia is more rural than the Neopolitan Mafia, which is more cosmopolitan,” notes Ferdinand Dohna, Beta Film’s head of production and coproduction. “Here they are all living in little houses in the countryside. They come from a very rural background and you see the shepherds and countrymen. We see a lot of Sicily because it’s all shot on location.”
Zatta continues: “We will see the dark heart of Sicily. You don’t see the sea, you see the woods, the inner landscape and you see places of Sicily you’ve never seen before. The story takes place in these parts of the island because the Corleonese Mafia were not living by the sea, they were living in the interior parts of Sicily. They were shepherds, they had a strong relationship with the land. And you see this from episode to episode.”
Like fellow Mafia drama Gomorrah, which is set in Naples and uses a strict Neopolitan dialect different to Italian, Il Cacciatore also employs an extreme Sicilian dialect, which adds another layer of authenticity. Then there’s the violence.
“It’s quite violent,” Dohna admits. “Not every five minutes but when it’s violent, it’s very violent.”
Zatta agrees: “By Italian standards, it’s very violent. But on the other side, if you want to depict the bad, you have to show it as it is. This was part of the job so you have to tell it. I’m happy to do it; we have to push boundaries and I think this younger, more educated audience is used to it because they all watch Netflix and Amazon and they know what we’re talking about. We want to tell the truth in this case. Violence belongs to that.”
Il Cacciatore is the latest Mafia drama that is set to draw international interest, following the success of Gomorrah, Suburra and Maltese, which have all helped to push Italian drama further into the spotlight alongside other series such as Medici (also distributed by Beta), 1992 and sequel 1993, My Brilliant Friend and forthcoming historical drama The Name of the Rose.
It also outlines the dual approach Rai is taking to television drama, with broader fare airing on Rai Uno and more challenging, boundary-pushing series on Rai Due. On bigger series, Rai is also keen to work with international partners, such as Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files) for Medici.
Ultimately, Il Cacciatore stands out because of its focus on not just the Mafia but the personal sacrifices Barone makes in the series (and Sabella in real life) to get the job done.
“You not only have to work day and night but you have to be a very peculiar personality to do this job, you have to be even more crazy than the Mafiosi themselves,” Zatta adds. “You can’t afford a normal life anymore if you do a job like this. In some ways, you may become worse than the Mafiosi you are hunting.”
Der Pass (Pagan Peak) is latest drama to take inspiration from Scandinavian hit The Bridge, putting a German/Austrian spin on the cross-border crime format. But, as the producers tell DQ on set at its mountainside filming location, this is a completely new story.
Despite becoming a global hit in its original form, Scandinavian crime drama Bron/Broen (The Bridge) has spawned several local adaptations. First there was The Bridge, set on the border between the US and Mexico; then The Tunnel, pairing the UK and France. There is also another version set between Russia and Estonia. So a new German/Austrian adaptation may not seem the most original contribution to the golden age of TV drama we are currently enjoying.
But when you find out the producers of Der Pass (or Pagan Peak, as it will be known in English) are Max Wiedemann and Quirin Berg, responsible for Netflix’s cult genre-bending hit Dark, as well as the hugely respected Oscar-winning film The Lives of Others, it’s hard to be so flippant.
“We didn’t want to just remake a series that’s already been remade twice,” says Philipp Stennert, one half of the directing/writing team, the other being his long-term collaborator Cyrill Boss. Together, they recently made Rivals Forever – The Sneaker Battle for ARD, a miniseries about the two brothers who separately created the Adidas and Puma brands during Nazi-era Germany.
“Apart from the premise of two countries working together and finding a body on the border, everything else is pretty much a completely new story,” he says of Sky Germany’s new eight-part series, which is distributed globally by Beta Film.
In keeping with the original format, the story centres on the discovery of a murder victim on a snowy mountain pass between Austria and Germany. But the most striking difference from the original is the role of the serial killer in Der Pass. Broen was a ‘whodunnit,’ with the detectives from either side of the Swedish/Danish border spending season one trying to find out who is culpable for the atrocious and often spectacular deaths. But in Der Pass, we find out the killer’s identity early on, and thus he plays a far larger role in the series as a whole. “We’re so interested in this evil that we wanted to follow it – how do they work and what drives them?” says Stennert.
The creative team spent a lot of time researching serial killers (slightly disturbingly, hundreds of interviews with the most notorious of them, such as Charles Manson, are available online) and they worked closely with Germany’s top criminal profiler to develop the character. Franz Hartwig, the actor who plays Gregor Ansbach, Der Pass’s serial-killing IT expert, was profoundly affected by playing the character.
“It’s really weird. I came to a point that I actually understood him and liked him,” says Hartwig. “His ideas totally make sense but unfortunately he choses completely the wrong means of achieving them.”
Indeed, on the set of the series, DQ is confronted by the aftermath of one of Ansbach’s most devastating crimes. With sirens wailing and hundreds of extras playing members of the public, the police and ambulances services are all covered in a horrible grey dust as they flee an explosion in a fictionalised mall on the outskirts of Salzburg, Austria. Out of this apocalyptic scene, on a brief but apparently much needed espresso break, emerges Nicholas Ofczarek, who plays Austrian police officer Gedeon Winter.
“Gedeon’s given up, he’s cynical,” he says of his character. “He’s addicted to everything – alcohol, uppers and downers – and to pay for these addictions, he’s got involved in organised crime. He’s a good cop but he’s wasted.”
However, the case sparks something in Gedeon that gives him a desire to atone for his former failings, as does his relationship with his German counterpart, Ellie Stocker, played by Julia Jentsch. “She gives my character a perspective in his life and in his job, a faith in humanity,” says Ofczarek.
But unlike the heroine of Broen – Saga Noren, who is socially awkward to the point of showing traits of Asperger syndrome – Ellie is “very in touch with herself and the humans around her,” says Ofczarek. In Broen, the male detective Martin was the happy-go-lucky one. In Der Pass, everything is reversed. Ellie presented the biggest writing challenges. “It was very hard to write a character who is truly good but also interesting,” says Stennert. But over the course of the investigation, Ellie and Gedeon’s roles switch.
Then there is the scenery. The Alpine border between Austria and Germany is, by any standards, one of the most beautiful locations in the world. But working 2,600 metres up the side of a mountain in up to half a metre of fresh snow every day was not without its difficulties. “The snow and the mountains are 40% of the show,” says Stennert. “Part of you thinks, ‘Oh no, we have to shoot in that again, it’s going to be really tough,’ but the other half is thinking, ‘This is going to look so good.’”
Following Deutschland 83/86, Ku’damm 56/59, Berlin Babylon and Dark, Germany is now enjoying a newly earned reputation as a contributor to the best TV drama coming out of Europe. In this new, exciting industry you have to take risks and be bold – and go against Germany’s stereotypically risk-averse nature. “Sky’s drama department felt that something, between the producers, the authors and the cast, came together,” says Carsten Schmidt, CEO of Sky Germany. Then it was time to “make sure high production values are available, put confidence in it and not question it.”
Producers Wiedemann and Berg have played no small part in raising the bar for the German industry, not only with Dark but also other highly respected recent productions such as TNT’s gangster drama 4 Blocks and neo-Nazi-focused miniseries Mitten in Deutschland: NSU (NSU: German History X). But interestingly the super-producing duo also make episodes of the show that most symbolises Germany’s traditional TV drama output: Tartot. To many, the hour-long crime series, which has been running for decades, and which features a new, neatly wrapped-up storyline each week, sums up everything the German industry should be trying to get away from.
“Tatort is like coming home; it gets the family together, it’s a great German icon. We’re very proud to be a part of Tatort,” says Berg. “Some shows attract a broad audience, some are niche. You shouldn’t compare disciplines that are very different. I love that, in TV today, there are so many different things going on.”
It seems that one of the keys to the success of Wiedemann and Berg lies in their questioning of accepted norms. Likewise for viewers sceptical about another remake of The Bridge, it may well turn out that Der Pass is the series they most eagerly binge-watch in 2018.
German film prodco 23/5 Filmproduktion is moving into TV for the first time with Das Verschwinden (The Vanishing), in which a woman searching for the truth behind her daughter’s disappearance uncovers more than she bargained for.
Since Generation War burst onto the scene in 2013, the international reputation of German drama has been surging on the back of shows such as Deutschland 83, Der Gleiche Himmel (The Same Sky), 4 Blocks and Ku’Damm 56. Upcoming projects including Das Boot and Babylon Berlin are likely to ensure German scripted series remain a talking point for some time to come.
It’s no surprise, then, to see filmmakers from all corners of the country now moving into television, further proving that the film-to-TV trend isn’t just reserved for Hollywood. Among German producers now targeting the small screen is 23/5 Filmproduktion, which is finding its way in this new world with Das Verschwinden (The Vanishing), its first TV drama.
Building on another current trend – stories with a disappearance at their heart (see also The Missing, The Five, El Regreso de Lucas) – The Vanishing centres on the search for 20-year-old Janine Grabowski, played by Elisa Schlott, who goes missing from a small Bavarian town near the Czech border.
While all the evidence suggests Janine wanted to leave her rural life behind, her mother Michelle (Julia Jentsch) takes up the investigation herself and quickly finds that the more she looks for answers, the more she discovers about her daughter and the company she kept. She then begins to question whether Janine even wants to be found – and her own role in the disappearance.
The eight-part series, distributed by Beta Film, was created by writers Bernd Lange and Hans-Christian Schmid, who also directs. With five or six stories in development, they were discussing which film to shoot next when they turned to The Vanishing, a story they determined was too complex and had too many characters to squeeze into a 90-minute feature.
“While there’s this story on the surface – this woman looking for her grown-up daughter – we’re also trying to create a portrait of a small town,” Schmid tells DQ at 23/5’s Berlin office. “Then we were curious to see if we could manage an eight-hour series.”
The series is based on a true story, and Schmid says he was keen to explore why young people have such a hard time with their parents. “Nowadays in this area, there are a lot of drug issues. Crystal meth is produced along the Bavaria-Czech border and it’s transferred to these small towns where you can buy it for €10 [US$12],” he continues.
“So they have a problem with this. The other thing I wanted to find out about was what happens to you if you’re looking for your daughter, even if she’s grown up. What do you find out about her? Does the daughter even want to be found? I would call it a mother-daughter story, or a generational story. These are just questions we hopefully put in the audience’s mind so maybe they talk about it afterwards.”
After getting the green light from public broadcaster Das Erste, the immediate challenge facing Schmid and producing partner Britta Knöller was raising the budget by navigating the German regional broadcasting system. The series is coproduced with Mia Film and ARD Degeto, BR, NDR and SWR. Support also came from funding bodies FilmFernsehFonds Bayern, Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg and the Czech State Fund for Cinematography.
“There’s no opportunity for independent producers like us to get a coproduction development for a TV series without losing all the rights,” Knöller explains. “If you’ve been developing for two-and-a-half years on your own, you don’t just give it up in the last five or six months, which is hard on the financial side but we managed.”
On the creative side, coming from a cinema background meant Lange and Schmid had to come to terms with a new story structure featuring enough material to fill eight hours of television. “It was just so hard to treat all the characters well and keep all the storylines up and to not just include something just to keep the story going on. It was quite challenging,” Schmid recalls.
“The structure is different; we’re used to the three-act structure and we’re both pupils of classical storytelling, but here you have seven cliffhangers so we had to create those without betraying the characters. Trying to make it look realistic and natural was tough, and if you read the third draft of the script, there’s not much left from the first treatment. It was a long, ongoing process.”
Production was completed in December last year following a 90-day shooting period for a show whose story progresses over eight days.
“Because we had one director [Schmid], we shot all the scenes at one location and then moved on to the next, so the actors were really hopping between these eight episodes, which probably isn’t the nicest thing for either the director or them,” Knöller admits.
“And, of course, you need team members who will be available for such a long journey. We shot the border scenes at the beginning and then moved up to Berlin because we had funding from the city and because it was turning to winter, so we did most of the interior shots there, such as the police station.”
Schmid worked with the production designer and cinematographer to create a show that he believes “doesn’t look like TV,” taking some inspiration from the naturalistic approach of French supernatural drama Les Revenants (The Returned). “It’s really hard to do to German suburbia and to try to make it look like something you want to watch,” he admits.
“I liked the look of Les Revenants and the simplicity of the shots. It’s a mountain village, which is the same in our show, and there was always a lot of fog. We were there [on location] for half a year and found out how quickly the weather changes, and there was fog coming up from the forest. But you see that so often that we didn’t put much emphasis on it. Often we would just have two people talking. You don’t have to shoot every angle.”
With The Vanishing set to debut in Germany this fall, 23/5 is now working on its next feature. And while the company hasn’t ruled out another move into television, it won’t embark on another small-screen series just because it’s the fashionable thing to do.
“It’s good if you’re really well organised with the schedule,” Schmid says. “You have to be prepared to shoot four minutes [of screen time] a day. In cinema it’s usually three or two-and-a-half, and that makes a big difference. You hardly ever have the chance to step back from what you’re doing, see the rushes and dailies and do something again. But you can get used to it. I’m afraid to get used to it!”
“Producing series just to be part of the series hype is kind of foolish,” Knöller notes, adding that new financial mechanisms are required to support independent producers. She says 23/5 will observe whether broadcasters’ current demand for series holds up and, reflecting the US industry, leads to television replacing mid-budget feature films, which now struggle to get made.
“Funding institutions have already shifted some of their money for cinema to series. I don’t know how that will impact the quality of cinema, but since we are still mainly a cinema production company, I would be wary of shifting everything to TV now.”
Without much noise or fanfare, Spain has been steadily building a reputation as one of the hottest producers of scripted drama, with homegrown series finding fans around the world. DQ takes an in-depth look at the wave of new series coming out of the country.
Spanish drama may not attract as much attention as Nordic noir or the ‘Korean wave,’ but there’s no question the country’s scripted series are now enjoying decent levels of profile around the world. And with significant increases in content investment from free-to-air (FTA) channels, pay TV and SVoD platforms, Spain’s storytellers are poised to deliver a new wave of diverse and ambitious shows to the international market.
One of the first firms to identify the potential of Spanish drama was German distributor Beta Film, which was responsible for the international roll-outs of Gran Hotel and Velvet, two exquisite period pieces produced by Bambú Producciones for FTA network Antena 3.
According to Beta Film executive VP for acquisitions and sales Christian Gockel, the success of the Bambú/Antena 3 partnership convinced his company to board two new productions from the same stable: Morocco – Love in Times of War and Farinia – Snow on the Atlantic. “They have raised the bar yet again by taking the unique blend of romance and drama we know so well from Velvet,” he says.
Morocco, says Gockel, is set in war-torn Spanish Morocco in the 1920s, where a group of nurses look after troops. Farinia, meanwhile, “centres on a fisherman who becomes a wealthy smuggler by providing South American cartels a gateway to Europe.”
Farinia is a good indicator of how Antena 3 – the dominant force in FTA drama – has diversified its slate in recent times. The channel also launched Vis a Vis (pictured above), a female-prison drama produced by Mediapro drama label Globomedia. Distributed by Mediapro sales arm Imagina under the title Locked Up, that show broke into the English-speaking market, airing on Channel 4 in the UK and on foreign-language SVoD service Walter Presents.
Walter Presents also picked up fellow Antena 3/Globomedia drama Pulsaciones (Lifeline). The psychological thriller is about a surgeon who unravels a medical scandal after suffering a heart attack and having strange nightmares when he receives a donor heart. “Last year, Locked Up exploded onto the international scene, heralding a renaissance in Spanish scripted excellence,” says Walter Presents curator Walter Iuzzolino. “This year they’ve done it again. Lifeline is a thriller with shock narrative twists and epic cliffhanger endings.”
The growing appeal of Antena 3-commissioned drama to the global market is further underlined by a deal that will see Netflix air miniseries The Cathedral of the Sea around the world. Based on Ildefonso Falcones’ bestselling novel and produced by leading Spanish prodco Diagonal, the story takes place in 14th century Barcelona during the Inquisition.
Explaining his remit, Antena 3 senior VP for drama Nacho Manubens says: “Although we produce sporadically for our other channels [laSexta, Neox], we mainly focus on Antena 3. We commission more than 600 hours of TV per year, with 120 primetime hours and 500 daytime hours. We have a range of genres, since our audiences demand variety and innovation. In thrillers we have had hits with Bajo Sospecha, Mar De Plastico and Vis a Vis. In period dramas we have had El Tiempo Entre Costuras and Velvet. These are both lines we will continue exploring.”
Antena 3 has developed a reputation for edgy shows – something Manubens wants to maintain. “We cannot take risks in every show we produce, but we try to keep making shows that push the envelope like we did with Casa De Papel [aka The Money Heist, the latest show from Via a Vis creator Alex Pina].”
Public broadcaster RTVE and Mediaset Espana, owner of commercial networks TeleCinco and Cuatro, have also upped their scripted game. For RTVE, key titles have been El Ministerio del Tiempo (The Ministry of Time) and Isabel, produced by Onza Partners/Cliffhanger and Diagonal respectively. Isabel, one of several royal-themed shows on the market, ran for three seasons and travelled well internationally. Buoyed by its success, RTVE also made a foray into English-language drama with Reinas (Queens), about the rivalry between Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I.
Mediaset España, meanwhile, had a hit with Sé Quién Eres (I Know Who You Are), a Filmax production about a charismatic university lecturer’s possible involvement in his niece’s murder. The show was bought by several networks, including the influential BBC4 – its first Spanish acquisition – with head of BBC programme acquisitions Sue Deeks calling it “the dramatic equivalent of a page-turning thriller.” Mediaset España’s increased investment in event series has also seen it back Forgive Me God, an eight-part miniseries about a nun battling delinquency and the drug trade.
Alongside the increased ambition among FTA channels, there are also new opportunities in the pay TV and SVoD arenas, according to Pilar Blasco, MD of Endemol Shine Iberia, a division that includes Diagonal. “Spain has always been a strong market for local original scripted programming and this has enabled us to build an industry of creative writers, showrunners and directors,” she says. “The big game-changer, however, has been increased commissioning of Spanish productions from the likes of Movistar+, Netflix, HBO and Amazon. As a result, the Spanish drama industry is flourishing with higher budgets that tell more daring stories from a broader range of genres.”
The most high-profile example of Blasco’s point is Telefónica’s decision to invest €70m (US$84m) a year in scripted series for its pay TV platform Movistar+. According to Domingo Corral, head of original programming at Movistar+, the plan is to launch 11 original series a year, initially for SVoD customers. The emphasis will be on “Spanish-language series dealing with Spanish stories created by Spanish talent,” he says.
Titles include La Zona, a story set in northern Spain four years after a nuclear accident. Also coming soon is La Peste, set in 16th century Sevilla against the backdrop of a plague. Movistar+ has also done a deal with Bambú for a spin-off from Madrid fashion-store series Velvet, which ended on Antena 3 after four seasons. The new series, Velvet Collection, will take the story forward to the 1960s and relocate to Barcelona.
At first sight, Corral’s insistence on super-charged Spanish series seems like it will limit their international appeal. But he takes the view that “great storytelling and characters have universal appeal.” Besides, he adds, Movistar+ series will have 50-minute episodes, rather than the 70 minutes typical to Spain. This will make them a better fit for the global market. Also, Movistar+ has spared no expense on talent, pulling in writers and directors from the country’s admired cinema scene.
Beta Film is continuing its relationship with the Velvet franchise and is also distributing La Zona, says Gockel. “We believe La Zona is one of the most exciting shows coming from Spain this year. It’s an innovative eco-crime thriller with a high budget that will catch viewers around the globe.”
About Premium Content has picked up rights to eight-part mob thriller Gigantes, while Sky Vision has secured global rights to La Peste, which is budgeted at €10m for six episodes. Sky Vision MD Jane Millichip gives an upbeat assessment of Movistar+’s shows: “With La Peste, they have assembled an incredible team with a proven track record. The partnership of Alberto Rodriguez and Rafael Cobos has delivered a deeply engaging story that delivers a thriller of scale, a pungent sense of the past and a modernity that will satisfy audiences.”
Movistar+’s investment in drama is especially timely given the growing competition. In April, Netflix launched Las Chicas del Cable, another sumptuous period piece from the Bambú stable that tells the story of four young women working for Spain’s national telephone company in the 1920s.
Also muscling in on the Spanish market is Fox Networks Group (FNG), which has just done a deal with Mediapro’s Globomedia that will see future series of Via a Vis air on its pay TV networks, rather than on broadcaster Antena 3. This is Fox’s first foray into original scripted series, with Vera Pereira, exec VP of FNG Iberia, saying it “will give us greater visibility and relevance in the market.”
Success in scripted formats is also contributing to Spain’s creative revival, with Star-Crossed (The CW), Red Band Society (Fox) and The Mysteries of Laura (NBC) all reimagined for the US market. Televisa USA is also teaming with Lantica Media to produce an English-language Gran Hotel, while Lionsgate has been linked to a US adaptation of Bambú’s Velvet.
The final dimension to the Spanish market’s new dynamism relates to the ambition of the producers. Bambú is part of StudioCanal and has coproduced time-travel drama Refugiados (Refugees) with BBC Worldwide. Diagonal, meanwhile, sees projects like The Cathedral of the Sea as a new phase. “It is a huge leap for the company as it moves into international coproductions,” observes Blasco. “It’s an ambitious project that would never have been commissioned without the support of Netflix.”
Another leading Spanish producer, DLO, recently became part of the Banijay network and has also picked up a commission from Movistar+ — a series based on Julia Navarro’s best-selling historical novel Dime Quien Soy. In a similar vein, Lagardère Active-owned producer Boomerang is well-known for El Tiempo Entre Costuras (The Time in Between), a 2013 hit for Antena 3 that went on to sell into 75 territories. Now the company has identified Latin America as a key expansion opportunity and is working on a brace of series for broadcasters in Chile. Bambú is also building its profile in Latin America, via a development deal with Televisa in Mexico.
Mediapro is also involved in an eclectic mix of domestic and international series. It coproduced English-language drama The Young Pope and is working on Paradise, a Finnish-Spanish copro that takes place in a Spanish village on the Costa del Sol with a large Finnish community. Other projects include The Head, a copro with Sweden’s Dramacorp in which 10 scientists, trapped in a laboratory at the South Pole, realise one is a killer. “We are also working with DirecTV Latin America on El Fútbol no es Así, a crime series set in the world of Spanish football,” says Mediapro head of content Javier Mendez.
While Mendez welcomes the influx of pay TV drama funding, he says a key opportunity for Mediapro is the international market – especially in light of the fact it has a distribution arm, Imagina. “Series like Narcos show it is possible to find great stories that have the ability to travel all over the world,” he explains. “Increasingly, our strategy is to back good stories regardless of where they come from, because there is a huge appetite for drama around the world.”
Viewers will be transported to Berlin in the Roaring Twenties in epic German period drama Babylon Berlin.
Based on Volker Kutscher’s novels, the story follows Gereon Rath, a police officer from Cologne investigating in the capital with his own agenda. Yet the story only serves as a way into a city overrun by organised crime and political extremism. Berlin is a metropolis for those with talent and ambition but a dead end for the impoverished masses striving for a better life.
Writers and directors Tom Tykwer, Henrik Handloegten and Achim von Borries discuss how they used to books as the basis of the 16-episode series, which they say also asks questions about German society during the emergence of the Nazis.
They also reveal how they shared responsibilities in pre-production, during shooting and in the editing process, on a production that ran to 185 shooting days and filmed on a backlot built at Studio Babelsberg, complete with four streets and squares.
Babylon Berlin is produced by X Filme, ARD Degeto, Sky and distributor Beta Film.
The great and good of the television industry are once again packing their bags for another week in the south of France. DQ previews some of the drama series set to break out at Mipcom 2017.
Mipcom is often viewed as an opportunity for US studios to showcase their scripted series to international buyers. But this year the US will be jostling for attention with dramas from the likes of Spain, Russia, Brazil, Japan, Scandinavia and the UK.
The Spanish contingent is especially strong thanks to a major investment in drama by Telefonica’s Movistar+. Titles on show will be Gigantes, distributed by APC; La Peste, distributed by Sky Vision; and La Zona and Velvet Collection, both from Beta Film. The latter is a spin-off from Antena 3’s popular Velvet, previously sold around the world by Beta.
Beta is also in Cannes with Morocco – Love in Times of War, as well as Farinia – Snow on the Atlantic, both produced by Bambu for Antena 3. The former is set in war-torn Spanish Morocco in the 1920s, where a group of nurses look after troops, while Farinia centres on a fisherman who becomes a wealthy smuggler by providing South American cartels a gateway to Europe.
Mipcom’s huge Russian contingent is linked, in part, to the fact 2018 is the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Titles that tackle this subject include Demon of Revolution, Road to Calvary and Trotsky – the latter two of which will be screened at the market. Trotsky, produced by Sreda Production for Channel One Russia, is an eight-part series that tells the story of the flamboyant and controversial Leon Trotsky, an architect of the Russian Revolution and Red Army who was assassinated in exile.
Other high-profile Russian projects include TV3’s Gogol, a series of film-length dramas that reimagine the famous mystery writer as an amateur detective. Already a Russian box-office hit, the films will be screened to TV buyers at Mipcom.
Japanese drama has found a new international outlet recently following Nippon TV’s format deal for Mother in Turkey (a successful adaptation that has resulted in more interest in Japanese content among international buyers). The company is now back with a drama format called My Son. NHK, meanwhile, is screening Kurara: The Dazzling Life of Hokusai’s Daughter, a 4K production about Japan’s most famous artist.
Brazil’s Globo, meanwhile, is moving beyond the telenovelas for which it is so famous. After international recognition for dramas like Above Justice and Jailers, it will be in Cannes with Under Pressure, a coproduction with Conspiração that recorded an average daily reach of 40.2 million viewers when it aired in Brazil.
From mainland Europe, there’s a range of high-profile titles at Mipcom including Bad Banks, distributed by Federation Entertainment, which looks at corruption within the global banking world. From the Nordic region there is StudioCanal’s The Lawyer, which includes Hans Rosenfeldt (The Bridge) as one of its creators, and season two of FremantleMedia International’s Modus. The latter is particularly interesting for starring Kim Cattrall, signalling a shift towards a more hybrid Anglo-Swedish project.
While non-English-language drama will have a high profile at the market, there are compelling projects from the UK, Canada and Australia. UK’s offerings include Sky Vision’s epic period piece Britannia and All3Media International’s book adaptation The Miniaturist – both with screenings. There’s also BBC Worldwide’s McMafia (pictured top), sold to Amazon on the eve of the market, and ITV Studios Global Entertainment’s The City & The City, produced by Mammoth Screen and written by Tony Grisoni.
From Canada, there is Kew Media-distributed Frankie Drake Mysteries, from the same stable as the Murdoch Mysteries, while Banijay Rights is offering season two of Australian hit Wolf Creek. There’s also a screening for Pulse, a medical drama from ABC Commercial and Screen Australia.
Of course, it would be wrong to neglect the US entirely,since leading studios will be in town with some strong content. A+E Networks, for example, will bring actor Catherine Zeta-Jones to promote Cocaine Godmother, a TV movie about 1970s Miami drug dealer Griselda Blanco, aka The Black Widow.
Sony Pictures Entertainment, meanwhile, is screening Counterpart, in which JK Simmons (Whiplash, La La Land) plays Howard Silk, a lowly employee in a Berlin-based UN spy agency. When Silk discovers that his organisation safeguards the secret of a crossing into a parallel dimension, he is thrust into a world of intrigue and danger where the only man he can trust is his near-identical counterpart from this parallel world.
If you’re in Cannes, don’t forget to pick up the fall 2017 issue of Drama Quarterly, which features Icelandic thriller Stella Blómkvist, McMafia, Benedict Cumberbatch’s The Child in Time, Australian period drama Picnic at Hanging Rock and much more.
Ola Rapace stars as a detective investigating a brutal murder in Swedish drama Hassel. The show’s lead director, Amir Chamdin, reveals the demands of taking charge of his first television series.
Coming from a background directing commercials and music videos, Amir Chamdin has an ear for a tune. So it’s no surprise that when he started work on his first television drama, the soundtrack played an integral part in shaping its mood, tone and style.
Hassel, based on the novels by Olov Svedelid, tells the story of Roland Hassel, a street-smart detective fighting increased levels of crime in Stockholm. When his mentor, Yngve Ruda, is brutally murdered, he leads a below-the-radar task force to investigate and avenge his death – with consequences for his family.
One of the first meetings Chamdin had with star Ola Rapace (Section Zéro, Farang) was in a music studio where they shared ideas about the soundtrack – provided by Nicke Andersson, the frontman of Swedish rock band The Hellacopters.
“We sat in the studio working out how does Hassel sound, how does the street sound and how does our Stockholm sound?” the director reveals. “To start in that corner, you lay a pretty good foundation for the TV show because you know how it sounds. Then you build your characters. We started in that way so when we were on set we knew who the characters were; we didn’t have to discuss that.
“Then when we were filming, I started with a close-up most of the time to get the acting pure and natural, because the first couple of takes are often magical. When that’s done, I go for the wider takes because then I know it’s more about the scenario than the acting. For many people, that way is upside down, but for our world it really worked.”
Svedelid first introduced Hassel in 1972 novel Anmäld Försvunnen (Reported Missing) and his most recent appearance was in 2004’s Död i Ruta Ett (Death in a Box). The author died in 2008.
The 10-part series, which debuted in September, places Hassel in a brand new story set in contemporary Stockholm. It was created by Henrik Jansson-Schweizer and Morgan Jensen, who wrote the scripts with Björn Paqualin, Charlotte Lesche, Johanna Ginstmark and Oliver Dixon. Hassel is produced by Nice Drama for Nordic SVoD streamer Viaplay and distributed by Beta Film.
“I’ve never done a TV series before. Five or 10 years ago, people were laughing at TV and thought films were the big thing,” says Chamdin, who also has feature films God Willing and Cornelius to his name. “Then TV swept everybody away and now they want to be in TV. Feature films are either art house or really big – there’s nothing in between. But it’s the same as in the 80s, when nobody believed in cinema because TV and video players were taking up all the attention. It’s all cyclical.
“For me to get into TV was more an opportunity because I knew the showrunner [Jansson-Schweizer] and it felt like common ground. TV today is much more cinematic than it was 10 years ago – especially this show, because it’s only one case, it’s character-driven. As a director, you can pay more attention to detail or the characters, so for me it was a really good experience.”
This isn’t the first time Hassel has been dramatised for the screen, with the novels first adapted in the 1980s and 1990s. It’s a series Chamdin remembers, recalling how the police officer and the look of the series stood out from other cop dramas on television at that time.
“He’s not a one-line detective, he’s not pretentious at all,” the director says. “In Sweden, we have a problem that many police officers leave because they think the salaries are really bad. I wanted to portray that. They do so much work but no one really gives them any thanks. Hassel will get the job done. If he crosses the line, who cares? Because the bad guys do all the time and nobody cares.
“He’s a working-class hero. That’s a cliché but we’re portraying it in that way. That led me to build the cop family more realistically. I grew up with [1970s US police series] Baretta and Kojack so it’s a dream to do a crime series, but I didn’t want to fall into the trap of clichés. I tried to treat it in a different way and not focus too much on the action scenes, even though there is action. It’s pretty hard-boiled.”
Chamdin describes an “organic” shooting practice on set in which he shoots the action with long lenses, with the aim of following the actors instead of leading them. “It’s a mix between shooting it very much 70s-style with long lenses or handheld and up close, so you get more of a spaghetti western feel to it. [It’s not] the Scandi noir thing where everything is very perfect and clean – this is more gritty and the look of it is not cold and blue. I went for a warmer colour scheme, so it’s more about the reds and the greens. Almost all the Scandinavian series are blue for some reason, I don’t know why. I’m more into the warm colours and I think that shows more of the truth of Stockholm.”
The director also found that his background in music videos and commercials meant he well suited to the faster nature of television shoots compared with feature films.
“If you need more than three takes, something is wrong with the script, the actor or I haven’t done my job preparing it as a director beforehand,” he asserts. “So everything is in the preparation and understanding how long a scene will take. You really learn that from music videos and commercials because you’re on the clock. I don’t get stressed if it’s late in the day because I know how much time I need. That’s why it’s so important you’re well prepared and know what you want. That has helped me.”
Chamdin directs six episodes – the first four plus episodes seven and eight – and says he had loved exploring television, which he describes as a new world. “I love this format and it’s so accessible for everybody,” he concludes. “I’m so glad I can do this – if it’s film on the big screen, lovely; if it’s TV, great. It doesn’t really matter as long as you can do the craftsmanship. It’s a magic world.”
One day Jannis Niewöhner was shooting an art-house film, the next he was giving a rallying speech to 150 extras on the set of a German historical miniseries. He tells DQ about period drama Maximilian and Marie de Bourgogne.
By the time Jannis Niewöhner arrived on the set of German historical miniseries Maximilian & Marie de Bourgogne, he had completed two films back-to-back before “crashing” into his latest role as the titular 15th century Austrian archduke.
“I had, like, one day off between projects and then Maximilian was four months of working,” he recalls. “It was crazy but good – it was an experience. The interesting thing about such a long shoot is you have to find your motivation and energy for the whole time. On other movies, we do it in one or two months and then you’re done. But after two months on Maximilian, we knew it was going to be two more. To have the same motivation was tough but we were able to do it because we had a great story and a great team.”
Set in 1477, the show retells the love story between Marie (Christa Theret), the orphaned daughter of the ruler of the House of Burgundy, and Maximilian (Niewöhner), the son of the Roman Emperor, as they try to survive and rule in the battle for supremacy in Europe.
The cast also includes Tobias Moretti, Jean-Hughes Anglade, Miriam Gussenegger and Alix Poisson. The show, which debuts in Austria on ORF next month and on ZDF in Germany in the fall, is coproduced by the two networks alongside MR Film and Beta Film.
“He’s an impulsive and hot-headed guy,” Niewöhner says of his character. “He’s the son of the emperor of Austria. He rebels against his father, who waits until the enemy gets tired, is out of money or out of men, and he hates that. He sees it as a sign of weakness and wants to make strong decisions; he wants to fight. That’s one side of him – the other is the sensitive, immature side. Then he meets Marie and he has to discover how to deal with a woman he has to marry. It’s interesting to have both sides of that character that are really far away from each other.”
Having previously starred in film and TV series, German actor Niewöhner describes the six-hour Maximilian as a “long movie.” And, as a fan of Maximilian director Andreas Prochaska’s 2014 movie The Dark Valley, he was keen to link up with the Austrian.
“It was such a great movie – it was cool and looked great. But he [Prochaska] never loses the story or the character,” Niewöhner explains. “And I was interested in doing a genre movie but I also wanted to tell a true story.
“Andreas was great. He’s what you wish a director to be like. I had a lot of freedom, I could try a lot of things and he trusted me. That’s the best feeling you can have as an actor. [There are moments when] he comes to you and says little things, but you never get the feeling you have to do something you can’t do. You can feel like that sometimes when you do a movie. He’s open and he has the right attitude. His perspective of doing movies is that while it’s something we love and have a lot of passion for, it’s only a movie.”
As you might expect from an actor taking on a factual role such as Maximilian, Niewöhner set out to research the true story of his character – but was wary of straying too far from the character laid out in Martin Ambrosch’s script.
“I read some books at the beginning but then I recognised that I should not spend too much time on the historical facts because you can distance yourself from the script and that’s not a good thing,” he notes. “The special thing about Maximilian is it’s a coming-of-age story. He’s a young guy like me who has many questions and is angry and doesn’t know why. He’s someone I can compare myself to. It was important to focus on that.”
The period costumes and sets also helped Niewöhner get into character – as did his French co-star Theret, despite the language barrier between the pair.
“Playing with Christa was so interesting because we spoke different languages, but it worked,” he admits. “I thought it wouldn’t work because she speaks French and I speak German. That’s a strange thing and not something you have in real life, but you just focus on the eyes and body language – maybe that’s where the most emotion is.
“If you look each other in the eyes and are both committed and want to tell the story, it’s really easy to be close and to feel something for each other. It was great shooting with her.”
Filming across Austria and the Czech Republic, as well as in Budapest, Hungary, the actor compares the travelling production to being on a school trip.
He adds: “This production was a boy’s dream, but the biggest challenge was on my first day. Before, I was shooting an art-house movie with just 20 people in the team, improvising, and then I was standing on the set of Maximilian with 150 extras in front of me and I had to give a speech as the new duke of Bourgogne. It was a challenge but it was good to do it in the first days of shooting.
“Maximilian was like nothing I’ve done before. It was all new. I’ve done genre movies before but something like this, where you pretend to be the guy who makes decisions for a whole country, that was something new.”
With TV series becoming more cinematic, Niewöhner expects to be back on the small screen, but cinema will always be his first love – “because there I have a lot of time to prepare. I feel you have more freedom, but in this case [on Maximilian], it was produced like cinema and it looks like cinema, and that’s a great thing.”
Writer Paula Milne and director Oliver Hirschbiegel discuss their upcoming Cold War drama Der gleiche Himmel (The Same Sky), in which a ‘Romeo’ agent is sent on a seductive mission in 1970s Berlin.
When it was first released in cinemas, German feature Downfall was praised for its gripping portrayal of Hitler’s last stand and Bruno Ganz’s striking performance as the embattled Führer.
Twelve years on, however, Oliver Hirshbiegel’s film is largely remembered for one iconic scene inside Hitler’s bunker – in which he rants and raves at his officers – that has been parodied hundreds of times to comedic effect. A quick YouTube search can find the dictator angrily lashing out at news that he has been banned from Xbox Live or at the latest plot twist in Game of Thrones.
“That’s hard to top,” Hirschbiegel jokes. “I can be very proud of this phenomenon – it’s a first in film history where a scene has been used over and over again. The most recent one I’ve seen is about [British politician] Boris Johnson finding out the UK voted to leave the European Union – it’s brilliant and very funny.”
Whether the director’s latest project, six-part Cold War thriller Der gleiche Himmel (The Same Sky) for German broadcaster ZDF, can earn similar cult status remains to be seen. But on the back of smash-hit spy dramas Deutschland 83 and The Night Manager, it’s certainly tapping into a genre riding a wave of popularity.
Set in 1970s Berlin, the story centres on East German agent Lars (Tom Schilling) who is sent to West Berlin as a ‘Romeo’ agent on a mission to seduce high-ranking British intelligence officer Lauren (Sofia Helin, pictured top).
Elsewhere, gay teacher Axel (Hannes Wegener) takes dramatic steps to escape the oppressive East German regime, and Lars’ cousin Klara (Stephanie Amarell), a talented swimmer, proves she is willing to do anything to join the East’s Olympic swimming team by taking pills that produce disturbing side effects.
A story of divided families and a divided city, The Same Sky is written by Paula Milne (The Politician’s Wife) and produced by UFA Fiction, distributor Beta Film and Mia Film, in association with Rainmark Films. Netflix has picked up the series for multiple countries worldwide, including English-speaking territories.
The show has its origins as a passion project for Beta CEO Jan Mojto, who had been involved in 2006 Oscar-winning film The Lives of Others and was interested in commissioning a TV series focused on divided Berlin.
And Milne – who is no stranger to Germany, having penned 1990 drama Die Kinder (The Children) for BBC1 – was approached by Rainmark’s Tracey Scoffield to develop Mojto’s ambitions further. “It was very spy-orientated,” Milne recalls of the initial treatment, “but I felt it should have been more than that. So I re-pitched it and was commissioned to write the scripts. Originally it was going to be in English, but then ZDF got involved and it became German.
“Oliver did all the translations himself – during prep, he would take two hours off every afternoon and translate the whole lot. He would call me and say, ‘We don’t have a word for this, do you have another one?’
“He then printed the scripts with my English on one page and the German version next to it. We worked really well together and, because he was also directing, he was hugely loyal to the material as he was partly involved in delivering it.”
The Same Sky led the writer to immerse herself in research about the Stasi – the East German security force – and the use of Romeo spies. The discovery of a defunct NSA listening station on the outskirts of Berlin also gave Milne a location in which to plant Helin’s intelligence officer.
“We were able to put the characters in there and it opened up a whole new area of research into listening signals,” she says. “It transpired that domes found in the middle of this forest were used to disguise the direction in which the radars were facing, and they often faced West as much as East. That gave it a contemporary conduit [referencing whistleblower Edward Snowden’s 2013 leak of NSA surveillance practices]. It’s always important to look at what resonates with a contemporary audience because otherwise you’re just doing a curiosity piece about the past.”
Milne also stresses the importance of authenticity: “It’s crucial when you do a piece like this, set in the past, that you don’t have what I call ‘precognition with hindsight.’ You don’t write it knowing what happened. You have to write it in the moment and that really helps with the authenticity.”
Hirschbiegel says he was fascinated by the story and immediately hit it off with Milne. “She has a very good way of writing and describing the world and the characters,” the director reveals. “She hardly ever gave me notes and for me, it was irritating – she was totally happy with the results. She said I was brilliant and wonderful, but I kept telling her, ‘You wrote it. It’s a good script!’”
Behind the camera, Hirschbiegel says he tries not to over-stylise the look of a show, instead admitting that he’s a “slave to the story” and keeps his focus on how each scene progresses the plot. But for The Same Sky, strong visual consideration was certainly employed to capture the look and feel of the period and the disparity between East and West Berlin.
Contrasting colour palettes were used to represent the two sides of the city, with hand-held cameras used more often when filming scenes set in the East. Shots in the West, Hirschbiegel explains, were “more stately, more static.”
The director continues: “The idea was for the audience to immediately recognise whether a scene is set in the East or the West. But the challenge was not being able to use any real locations, as we shot in Prague. So you just look at lots of images and try to find matches where you’re shooting. I created my own Kurfurstendamm [a grand boulevard in Berlin], though it is actually smaller than the original.
“The East was easier. They had these eastern bloc pre-fab housing areas everywhere in the East and also in Prague, so we used those. But back in the day, West Berlin was not in good shape. There were lots of ruins and run-down houses, while in the East, all these pre-fab buildings were new because they were built in the 1960s and 70s. Going to Berlin or Prague now, all these old facades have been renovated, while the pre-fab buildings are all fucked up and run-down. So it’s a bit of a challenge to find the proper locations to match what it looked like then.”
Describing The Same Sky as a “serial, not a closed series,” Milne is now preparing a story treatment for a potential second season – though the show’s future depends on how season one is received when it airs in early 2017.
“Ultimately,” she adds, “this is a story about ordinary people who are living in extraordinary times and are forced to make decisions perhaps none of us are confronted with today. It has a morality under it without, I hope, ever being preachy – but I don’t answer the questions, I just pose them!”
As for Hirschbiegel, the director admits he’s now turning down movie projects because he wants to work in television, and has already signed on to direct an episode in the second season of Showtime drama Billions. “It’s more cool right now and it happens so much faster,” he says of the small screen, “and often the scripts are way more relevant and daring. It’s much more of an adventure now to do television than it is to do a movie.”
Štěpán Hulík is hoping to repeat the international success of Burning Bush with his next project, Czech drama Pustina. He tells DQ what drew him to the story of a mining village on the verge of extinction.
In 2013, HBO Europe’s compelling miniseries Burning Bush received critical acclaim for the way it dramatised the true story of Prague history student Jan Palace, who set himself on fire in 1969 in protest against the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia.
Helmed by Polish director Agnieszka Holland and scripted by Czech writer Štěpán Hulík, the three-part miniseries was the centrepiece of the pay TV network’s push into original series.
Three years on, HBO Europe has reteamed with Hulík for Pustina (aka Wasteland), an eight-part drama set in the Czech Republic that focuses on a mining village on the verge of extinction.
With the village sitting on huge reserves of coal, foreign mining interests plan to acquire it, remove its population and their homes and establish a soulless mining complex. The villagers are divided: some see it as an opportunity for a new life elsewhere, while others want to preserve their homes – and traditional life and the community start to fall apart.
Directed by Ivan Zacharias and Alice Nellis, the series, which launched last month, is produced by Nutprodukce and Etamp, which also made Burning Bush for HBO Europe. Beta Film is distributing the series, which was screened in its entirety at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year.
The story, which opens with the search for a missing girl, first emerged with the help of producer Tomas Hruby, who conceived the plot of a community under threat.
“This idea was very appealing to me,” Hulík admits, “so I started to think about it and develop it further. That was the beginning of the process. We were just figuring out what the story was, making up ideas. I was trying to write a script. This process lasted for two years – it was very complicated.
“With Burning Bush, we had set the bar for ourselves quite high and we didn’t want to make anything smaller than that show. We wanted to achieve something as appealing to the audience and as powerful and strong as Burning Bush. So it was difficult but it was also great motivation.”
The writer admits his latest series has a complex opening, with viewers quickly introduced to different elements of the story and a large ensemble cast. “The most difficult thing when writing TV series is to keep in mind all the sub-plots, all the characters. We have 100 speaking parts in the series so it’s very difficult to keep a map of the story in mind. To know where the key points are and to follow them is quite difficult.
“It’s much easier when writing a feature, where you have just a couple of main characters and your basic storyline is much more simple than with a TV series. But, on the other hand, with TV you have great space and time. In some ways, TV series are like a novel.”
Hulík hopes viewers will be surprised as the story reaches its thrilling conclusion. “I hope it will make perfect sense – this is the only possible ending,” he says. “It will be a shot in the dark but a very natural conclusion. I’ve known the ending since the beginning but it was difficult to get to.”
From the opening scenes of Pustina, it’s clear the northern Bohemia location that serves as the visual backdrop to the series will play as important a role as any character in the show, with the English translation of the title – Wasteland – conjuring images of a desolate and foreboding landscape.
Hulík describes the environment as a “living organism” and one of the main protagonists: “You should get the feeling that the mine is ‘breathing.’ It should feel like it expands literally day by day and that, in the end, it will swallow up all the people and the whole nearby village.
“We were using the woods that surround the village in a similar way. We did our best to create the feeling that nature is a silent witness to everything. At least one of our characters – Karel – can feel this. At the end of episode two, he is looking at the trees in the woods and seems to be mesmerised by them. He knows that those trees are saying something to him but he can´t understand what they are trying to tell him – and the viewer can understand this as well.”
Hulík says that while he writes his scripts with visuals in mind, his notes are merely suggestions for how the drama should play out on the screen, rather than instructions to the director. “Each small gesture or small pause in the dialogue I try to write down in the script. But it’s just my suggestion. It’s a way of how to do it but maybe the director will find another option.”
But would he ever consider sitting behind the camera himself? “Absolutely not! I have no ambition to direct,” he insists. “I’m happy as a scriptwriter. My collaboration with Agnieszka Holland on Burning Bush was such a wonderful experience, we became such good friends. Scriptwriters quite often want to be directors when they see some directors spoiling their script, but nothing like that has happened to me. I don’t want to be a director. I’m quite happy!”
Antony Root, exec VP of original programming and production at HBO Europe, recalls that Hulík proposed Pustina just a month after the premiere of Burning Bush. “It’s what the British would call a ‘State of the Nation’ piece,” he explains. “We were very intrigued at the mystery of the missing daughter juxtaposed with the piece about what a community does when someone wants to knock down their village. It seemed to be a very potent dilemma.”
The drama, says Root, works on three levels: the mystery, the socio-political backdrop of the community’s peril and the family drama. “It’s a signature HBO piece with authorship and point of view,” he adds. “It’s not like anything else around in its country of origin and it will have some international reach. It’s a very original piece, certainly something with a voice. HBO looks for atmosphere and point of view and it gives us both.”
It was also a natural decision for the writer to return to HBO after the success of his first project with the network. “They are very open-minded,” Hulík notes, “and they are very smart. I hope to work with them again because it’s been a pleasure.”
He is currently adapting Simon Mawer’s novel Mendel’s Dwarf for the big screen but says he is already turning his attention to his next TV project.
“I hope Pustina will connect with audiences,” Hulík concludes. “I wanted to make something that would be appealing both for our audience in the Czech Republic and also abroard – like True Detective, Top of the Lake or The Missing. This was my hope and our dream. I don’t know whether we will fulfil it, but we did our best.”
Echoing a growing trend in the TV business, US cable channel TNT has ordered a fifth season of its hit series The Last Ship before the fourth run has even begun.
Based on the William Brinkley novel, the summer series follows the aftermath of a global catastrophe that ravages the world’s population. Because of its location, the navy destroyer USS Nathan James avoids falling victim to the devastating tragedy. Now, however, Captain Tom Chandler (Eric Dane) and his crew must confront the reality of their new existence in a world where they may be among the few survivors.
According to TNT, the show is currently averaging around 7.1 million viewers per episode across multiple platforms and ranks as one of basic cable’s top 10 summer dramas among adults aged 18 to 49. Seasons four and five (2017/2018) will both have 10 episodes.
TNT executive VP of original programming Sarah Aubrey said: “The Last Ship has taken viewers on an exciting ride through three truly thrilling seasons. We look forward to watching the cast and production team ratchet up the drama, action and suspense even more over the next two seasons through summer 2018.”
The series is produced by Turner’s Studio T in association with Platinum Dunes, whose partners – blockbuster filmmaker Michael Bay, Brad Fuller and Andrew Form – serve as executive producers. Co-creators Hank Steinberg and Steven Kane are also executive producers, along with director Paul Holahan.
Less fortunate this week is ABC’s summer series Mistresses. The show, which has just completed its fourth season, will not be back for a fifth. Based on the British series of the same name from Ecosse, Mistresses revolves around the lives and loves of a group of sexy female friends.
Although the show was never a huge ratings performer for ABC, it has been a decent franchise, selling to broadcasters like TLC in the UK, RTÉ in Ireland and TVNZ in New Zealand. It was also subject of a Chilean remake called Infieles.
Still in the US, HBO is only three weeks away from the launch of its much-anticipated sci-fi reboot series Westworld (October 2). There has been a lot of industry speculation that the show might bomb after filming was temporarily shut down at the start of the year. The rumours at the time were that something must have gone wrong with the series to result in such an interruption.
Now, though, those close to the production are saying that the hold up was to ensure that Westworld has a strong enough foundation to become a long-running returnable franchise.
Actor James Marsden told Entertainment Weekly: “It wasn’t about getting the first 10 [episodes] done, it was about mapping out what the next five or six years are going to be. We wanted everything in line so that when the very last episode airs and we have our show finale, five or seven years down the line, we knew how it was going to end the first season. [The production team] could have rushed them and get spread too thin. They got them right, and when they were right, we went and shot them.”
HBO will certainly be hoping that Westworld can run and run – because it will soon be faced with the end of mega hit Game of Thrones.
Also in the US this week, there has been a sudden burst of development news. SVoD platform Hulu is developing a fantasy-adventure series based on the Throne of Glass book series by Sarah J Maas. Kira Snyder will write the adaptation, which comes from The Mark Gordon Company.
USA Network has ordered a pilot for a crime drama that stars Jessica Biel as a woman who commits an out-of-character act of horrific violence. Called The Sinner, this is based on a book by Petra Hammesfahr.
ABC, meanwhile, has commissioned a pilot called American Heritage – about two families forced to work together to run LA’s premiere real estate firm.
Elsewhere in the world of scripted TV, Nordic-based streaming service Viaplay and Swedish TV channel TV3, both part of Modern Times Group (MTG), have linked up with German distributor Beta Film on a new Nordic noir series called Hassel. The 10-part show is based on books by popular Swedish author Olov Svedelid, who died in 2008. It will be produced by Nice, another arm of the MTG empire.
The central character of the series is Roland Hassel (played by Ola Rapace), a police detective who is the protagonist of 29 books by Svedelid. So if the show is successful there is plenty of scope for it to come back.
Hassel will be the third Viaplay original series following Swedish Dicks and Occupied. It has been created by Henrik Jansson-Schweizer and Morgan Jensen, with scripts by Bjorn Paqualin and Charlotte Lesche. Shooting starts this year.
Over in Australia, Network Ten has commissioned an adaptation of Kenneth Cook’s classic 1961 novel Wake in Fright. The two-part show will tell the story of a young schoolteacher who becomes stranded in the small outback mining town of Bundanyabba.
It will be produced by Lingo Pictures in association with Endemol Shine Australia, with backing from Screen Australia and Screen NSW. It has previously been remade as a movie, released in 1971.
Network Ten head of drama Rick Maier said: “There are few Australian stories as original or compelling as Wake in Fright. Kenneth Cook’s novel, now re-imagined for a new generation, deals with the biggest themes. Provocative, morally complex and brilliantly realised, this story is guaranteed to stay with you long into the night and – possibly – for years to come.”
Finally, Endemol Shine-owned production company Fifty Fathoms (Fortitude, The A Word) is adapting Lisa McInerney’s debut novel The Glorious Heresies, with Entourage’s Julian Farino attached to direct and exec produce. McInerney will adapt the novel, which was first published in 2015 and looks at the lives of a collection of misfits living in modern-day Cork in Ireland. It won the Desmond Elliot Prize and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.
Norwegian public broadcaster NRK is making strides reaching young audiences with a host of online dramas. As part of DQ’s Digital Drama Season, Julie Andem tells Michael Pickard how Shame (aka Skam) is reaching out to teenage viewers.
The Edinburgh International Television Festival this week witnessed a no-holds-barred attack on mainstream media’s failure to grasp youth culture as viewers increasingly move online.
Vice Media CEO Shane Smith warned that broadcasters face extinction as they have failed to connect with young audiences or focus on the content they want to watch, opening the door to digital competitors.
It won’t have been news to executives gathered in the Scottish capital that traditional broadcasters face an uphill battle to win back viewers (of any age) lost to the world of anytime, anywhere viewing.
But some networks are fighting to reclaim this lost audience. One in particular, Norway’s NRK, has taken steps to target teenagers with a number of shows that appeal directly to them and the issues they face.
Among them is Shame (aka Skam), which returns for its third season this autumn. Described as a mix between a traditional drama and a blog, it follows a cast of teenage characters as they navigate life at home and at school. Drawing parallels to British teen drama Skins, each season of Shame centres on a different main character, telling their story from their perspective.
Individual scenes from the web series, lasting up to three minutes, are broadcast daily at different times on p3.no, before they are compiled into longer 15- to 25-minute episodes every Friday. It also airs on linear TV on NRK3 and is distributed internationally by Beta Film.
In season one, Shame centres on 16-year-old Eva and her friends Chris, Sana, Vilde and Noora, who are all first-year students at Hartvig Nissen High School. The series follows the girls through their Russ celebration planning, heartbreak, parties and all the challenges young people face as they begin high school.
Creator Julie Andem had previously made shows for NRK, including Girls, which was aimed at girls aged seven to 12. It was such a big success that the broadcaster asked her if she could write a show for a slightly older audience, specifically 16-year-old girls.
“That audience wasn’t watching NRK at the time, they were only watching Netflix and HBO and big international drama series,” she explains. “We did five or six months of research, conducting interviews and reading articles and trying to understand who they were. Also, because we knew this production would be low budget, we couldn’t really compete with Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, which we knew they were already following. But [the research gave us] an advantage – now we know who they are, the culture they grew up in, what they watched on television when they were children, where they go on holiday and what they eat for dinner. We know all about Norwegian culture.”
Norwegian teenagers watch a lot of video online, and almost never tune into terrestrial TV, Andem’s research found. They also watch a lot of different shows and happily turn over if something doesn’t grab their attention within the first few minutes.
“So we knew we had to make something that would catch their attention quickly and something that they thought of as true,” she says. “It had to have truth and honesty about their own culture, something they hadn’t seen anywhere before and couldn’t get anywhere else. They had to relate to it and identify with it more than any other series. So that’s what we tried to do.”
The writing process began with the creation of nine characters, each with their own story that speaks to contemporary teens. Andem also leant on the personalities of the actors to bring the characters to life.
“Every character has a specific task,” she explains. “They have something they are supposed to learn. So when I found in the research what sort of topics the target group needed or wanted to know more about, I created characters that would [reflect them] on screen.”
Andem says the best part about writing online drama is the lack of time limits, allowing for episodes to be 14 minutes or 40 minutes long and everything in between. And because the show is set in real-time, storylines set on the first day of school or on Christmas Day are released on those exact days.
“That’s both a challenge and a lot of fun because you have to be up to date on what’s happening in the beginning of the season,” the writer/director admits. “You have to know when schools have holidays and you have to write that in the storyline at that exact time.”
To make matters more complicated, the characters can also be followed across social media, extending the character relationships across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and via text messages.
“Nothing will ever happen on Instagram that has consequences for the storyline, so you don’t have to follow them,” Andem adds, “but it’s a good way to give them more of the characters without necessarily putting it in the story. Viewers can get closer to the characters because they follow them and can comment on their pictures.
“It’s a lot of work, but the audience love it and it’s very good promotion – on social media it spreads on its own. We have 10 or 11 different Instagram accounts for the different characters, and most of them have thousands of followers.”
The use of social media and the real-time setting gives Shame the authenticity and realism it set out to achieve, but Andem is also quick to point out that the show is still a drama at its heart – and striking a balance between realism and drama is one of her trickiest tasks.
“Since Girls, we’ve always had one rule – there is no rule. We do the best for the scene and we do it as simply as possible. We don’t try to overdo it. Shame has a lot of social realism but we also have a lot of humour. Some scenes we shoot more in a sitcom way to get the humour out. Then other scenes we just follow the characters closely like in a documentary.”
With nine lead characters to follow, it might seem like it would make sense for Shame’s current ninth season to be its last. But Andem says that, with characters coming and going all the time, it would be easy to take the series further.
The show’s creator is convinced that heading online is the best way to serve teenage audiences, though the viewing figures suggest it’s not 16-year-old girls tuning into the daily scenes and weekly episodes as they drop.
“The target group is girls aged 16 and in Norway there’s around 60,000 of those. We had 1.3 million viewers at one point in season two, so more and more people were watching it,” she reveals. “It’s almost like a blog combined with a drama series. We reveal it scene by scene, not episode by episode. It’s a different way of following and a different way of watching television. But I have to create a lot of cliffhangers!”
Hard-hitting Italian crime drama Gomorrah has been hailed as one of the best TV shows of the decade. Michael Pickard speaks to the series’ writer and co-creator Stefano Bises.
If you believe Ricky Gervais, there’s an Italian drama that stands side by side with critical and popular hits such as The Wire, The Bridge and The Sopranos and could even be the “TV show of the decade.”
Gomorrah (or Gomorra as it’s known in its native Italy) debuted to huge success when it launched in spring 2014, drawing 700,000 viewers to Sky Atlantic and Sky Cinema – twice the number achieved by established crime drama Romanzo Criminale.
The ratings justified the hype surrounding the series, which had already been sold around the world – Sky in the UK and Germany, Canal+ in France and HBO in Scandinavia and Latin America were among the buyers – before an episode had aired.
And it continued to grow through its first season, with 900,000 viewers tuning in for the 12th and final episode in season one, according to overnight ratings. That figure grew to 1.2 million after replays were included. Season two then kicked off in May this year with 1.3 million watching the season premiere, the highest ratings ever for a Sky Italia series and above and beyond the number of Italian viewers watching US shows such as Game of Thrones.
While series such as Romanzo Criminale and Inspector Montalbano have established themselves as international hits, it is Gomorrah that has now become the calling card for Italian drama worldwide, with distributor Beta Film selling the fast-paced and explosive series into 130 territories.
The show is now set for its US debut on SundanceTV on August 24 – but what it is about this Mafia story that has proven so popular at home and abroad?
Based on the book by Roberto Saviano (which also inspired a 2008 film directed by Matteo Garrone), the series follows the members of the Savastano clan, one of the most powerful and influential Neapolitan crime families. When the head of the family, Don Pietro, is jailed, second-in-command Ciro Di Marzio is forced to adopt his mentor’s violent methods while grooming Pietro’s son Genny to take control of the empire. Along the way, he must deal with Genny’s impulsiveness, Don Pietro’s wife Lady Imma, the family’s growing unrest without its godfather and rival organisations set on claiming Savastano territory.
Produced by Sky Atlantic, Cattleya and Fandango in association with La7 and Beta Film, Gomorrah is written by Stefano Bises and directed by Stefano Sollima, Francesca Comencini and Claudio Cupellini.
The series was developed for television by Saviano, Bises, Giovanni Bianconi, Leonardo Fasoli and Ludovica Rampoldi – and Bises says he never expected the acclaim Gommorah has received since its debut two years ago.
“The book by Roberto is surrounded by different feelings,” he explains. “Part of the country is for him and supports him and his job, but there’s another part that is against it because they say he’s always writing and telling stories that show the worst part of our country. It’s not good publicity. So we didn’t know how people would receive it. We had a lot of problems from politicians and people who were saying, ‘You’re speculating on our problems, you’re picturing Naples like Hell,’ but there were many other people who said the standard of the series was, for the first time in Italy, an international standard.
“We had a huge success with the second season, much better than the first – and the second season is always more difficult because you lose the freshness and viewers have already seen that world. But Sky doubled the audience from the first to the second season, which was huge for us. We were trending on Twitter the evening Gomorrah was broadcast – that’s unbelievable for an Italian series.”
One of the initial challenges of the project was separating the series from not just Saviano’s bestselling book but also the movie of the same name, which meant Bises and director Sollima had to find a new story to tell in the same Neapolitan setting.
“We had to give a new picture of that world so we said, ‘Let’s choose a family, let’s tell a basic story with an old boss who’s feeling he’s getting too old to maintain power,’” Bises explains. “He has a son who’s not ready to take his place and we introduced an illegitimate son who is brave and capable of driving the kingdom. There were very classical elements used to build the story and then we dropped it in Scampia Secondigliano [a northern district of Naples] and it works. It was very simple; it was a very basic plot. The characters were very classical to watch – it was like Shakespeare in Naples.”
During development, Bises and Sollima visited Scampia Secondigliano together before building the characters and the story. But the writer admits it wasn’t until they began watching the daily shooting footage that they began to fully understand the characters they had created.
“Often in the night I went to Naples when Stefano was shooting,” he recalls. “We saw the dailies and then we understood a lot of things – for example, the friendship between Genny and Ciro is born not in the script but from viewing the first footage. We decided to do it like they were two brothers because they work so well together. It was day by day, building brick by brick, and on the second season we were much more aware of what we were doing.”
One of the show’s strengths is its Neapolitan setting, grounding the characters and their actions against a real location – though filming in Mafia-run districts of Naples was not without its problems.
“It’s one of the main characters of the series,” Bises says of the show’s location. “The director of photography, Paolo Carnera, did a great job photographing those neighbourhoods because they are an unbelievable set – and they’re real. The first season was very difficult to realise because while we were shooting there was a war on the streets. We would have a plan [for the next day’s filming] and during the night someone would call us and change the plan because two people had just been shot and killed on the street, so it would not be a good idea to shoot there tomorrow.
“There were 10 or 12 deaths during shooting for the first season but for the second season, the major problem was we were always surrounded by kids with smartphones who wanted to film our actors.”
The shocking real-life events that took place in this northern hub of Naples often informed the series, however, with Bises explaining that true stories were always the starting point for the show.
In fact, writers from the show would regularly venture into the city to collect and research stories. But this meant they often had to find two or three sources to collaborate the same information, such was the possibility that sources would present a version of events that could help them in a fight with another Mafia family.
“There are so many unbelievable stories right there,” he continues. “Our problem was working out how to make things authentic for viewers. People would never believe they were true! Another problem was the real people who inspired the characters. [We had to make sure] they wouldn’t recognise themselves in those characters because that might put [people involved in the show] in danger, but we always took inspiration from reality. It’s much more powerful than any imagination.”
Looking ahead to season three, Bises, who has written the plot outline, admits that while the show’s success has meant production is now a much smoother process, new challenges often emerge.
“The only problem we have now is keeping people away from the set,” he reveals. “We had a problem on the last season finale when there was a big plot secret that we kept for months. On the day of broadcasting the last episode, we discovered someone was on a roof where we were shooting and he was able to catch some pictures of two guys in a duel. So on the internet they were saying, ‘Who’s killing who? Who’s dying?’
“So that’s the biggest danger right now on the production side. On the writing side, when you come from big success, you always fear being unable to reach the same level. You have to not think about that and think of doing something surprising, like we did in season two when we killed off many main characters. People were so upset, they called us crazy for killing their favourite character. But it’s always the reality that drives you – we were telling a period of that struggle where all the bosses were killing each other.”
Bises is now dividing his time between other film and TV projects, including an adaptation of Niccolò Ammaniti’s novel Anna. He is also involved in planning for a potential second season of Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope, which stars Jude Law and will air on HBO, Sky and Canal+ later this year.
There are also plans for a fourth season of Gomorrah, with the writer adamant that there are plenty of as-yet-untold stories capable of keeping viewers on the edge of their seats.
“I don’t feel comfortable comparing it to masterpieces like The Wire or The Sopranos,” Bises adds. “It’s just an Italian gangster movie, but it shows we can do something good when we tell our own stories. This is a country that is full of stories. The Mafia is strong everywhere in the country. We would be missing our duty if we were not telling these stories.”
There’s a strong international flavour to drama commissioning this week, with plenty of action in terms of format deals, coproductions, acquisitions and plans for movie adaptations.
FremantleMedia, for example, has just announced that its Australian prison drama Wentworth is being remade in Flemish for Belgium-based commercial broadcaster. With a working title of Gent-West, the new 10-part drama will be coproduced by FremantleMedia Belgium and Marmalade Productions. Although the show doesn’t debut on Vier until 2018, it will be shown prior to that on Telenet’s paid cable channels Play and Play More.
Stefan De Keyser, MD of FremantleMedia Belgium, called Wentworth “an explosive drama filled with twists and emotion. Its suspenseful storylines and powerful female cast are sure to captivate Flemish audiences and we hope that Vier’s commission will build on the worldwide success of this scripted property.”
The Flemish version of the show will be the third adaptation following Celblok H (Netherlands) and Block B – Unter Arrest (Germany). Wentworth is also popular in its original form: to date, the show has aired in 141 countries worldwide and is still going strong on home soil after four series on SoHo.
FremantleMedia also revealed this week that the new Ukranian version of its New Zealand soap Shortland Street has started well. Known locally as Central Hospital, the 60-part drama is currently airing on channel 1+1 and is Ukraine’s number-one show. Central Hospital has also been sold on in its completed form to Georgia and Kazakhstan. Following the success of the show, Anne Kirsipuu, format sales director for CIS, Ukraine, Georgia and the Baltic States at FM, said: “We’re looking forward to introducing more local adaptations (of other FM shows) soon.”
Elsewhere in Europe, producer/distributor Beta Film has secured the rights for Light of Elna, a Nazi-refugee drama directed by Sílvia Quer (Velvet, Grand Hotel). The Spanish-Swiss coproduction tells the story of Swiss teacher Elisabeth Eidenbenz, who created a maternity home for female WW2 refugees about to give birth. Beta Film will serve as the worldwide distributor, having previously sold Spanish dramas Velvet & Grand Hotel worldwide.
Scandinavian crime drama continues to prove its appeal worldwide. This week, Germany’s ZDF Enterprises (a big supporter of Nordic Noir) licensed the third season of Bron (The Bridge) to Japan’s Tohokushinsha Film Corp. Under the terms of the deal, TFC gets VoD and DVD rights in addition to television rights. ZDFE and TFC have a longstanding relationship that has already seen deals for the first three seasons of The Killing and the first two of Bron. The latter has been a hit worldwide, selling in its completed form to 140 countries and being adapted in the US and UK/France.
Continuing with our globetrotting, there are also reports that leading Argentinian broadcaster Telefe has signed a deal with Diego Maradona to make a drama about the iconic footballer’s life. There is certainly plenty of on-field and off-field action to fill a series – as Maradona noted in a modestly worded statement: “Every month of my life has enough for someone to write 100 chapters. Everything that I lived exceeds any fiction. I’m happy and excited that Telefe is developing this project for the world.”
Telefe contents and international business director Tomas Yankelevich added an equally measured summation: “This is an incredible challenge as a producer to think about turning into fiction the life of the best soccer player of all time, and probably the most famous person in the world. We think of an unprecedented super-production, and are looking for partners to join us. We expect to make a global show without borders.”
Notwithstanding the hype, Telefe is undoubtedly the right company to lead the project. Owned by Telefonica, it is one of the major producer/broadcasters in Latin America with activities that stretch across film and TV. Recent productions include Story of a Clan, Educating Nina and coproduction The Return of Lucas.
In the US, meanwhile, there’s some interesting news for sci-fi fans. Roddenberry Entertainment, the company set up by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry (who died in 1991), has created a project called Holoscape that has been optioned by Storyoscopic Films. Holoscape is set in the aftermath of World War III and the collapse of civilisation. Using a mysterious device from the war (the Holoscape), a group of survivors discovers they are part of a conspiracy that has shaped the destiny of humankind, but are given the chance to escape their present and save our future.
“Storyoscopic holds a unique place in the industry due to its strong ties to China and the international market,” said Trevor Roth, head of development for Roddenberry Entertainment. “That, along with its sense for strong properties and compelling stories, makes it a perfect collaborator for Holoscape.”
Also this week, US network Fox gave a put-pilot commitment to a Marvel action-adventure series that will tap into the latter’s rapidly-expanding X-Men universe. The pilot will focus on two ordinary parents who discover their children possess mutant powers. Matt Nix (Burn Notice) will write the script and executive produce alongside a bunch of X-Men and Marvel executives.
“Developing a Marvel property has been a top priority for the network, and we are so pleased with how Matt Nix has led us into this thrilling universe,” said Fox Entertainment president David Madden. “There’s comic book adventure, emotional and complicated relationships and a rich, existing mythology from which to draw. With the brilliant production crew behind this project, it has all the makings of a big, fun and exciting series.”
Other interesting deals this week include a Netflix order for a Chuck Lorre (The Big Bang Theory) comedy called Disjointed and a development deal between Endemol Shine Studios and acclaimed film maker Guy Ritchie, who will develop scripted series for the company. There are also reports that YouTube is talking to UK content creators about original content for its SVoD service YouTube Red.
Martin Ambrosch, the writer behind German crime drama Anatomy of Evil and the forthcoming historical series Maximilian, tells DQ about the challenge of meeting his own ambitions on screen.
As one half of a prolific writer-director partnership, Martin Ambrosch describes himself as a specialist in thrillers.
During his career he has penned episodes of German police procedural Tatort and Austrian crime dramas SOKO Kitzbühel and SOKO Donau.
But it is together with director Andreas Prochaska that Ambrosch brought to life the hit TV movie franchise Anatomy, which airs on ZDF in Germany and ORF in Austria.
The series, which debuted in 2010 with Anatomy of Evil, follows psychologist Richard Brock (played by Heino Ferch) as he is called in by the Vienna police to investigate the murder of a man who was about to stand trial for embezzlement.
Four more films featuring Brock followed – Anatomy of Revenge, Anatomy of Fear, Anatomy of Shame and Anatomy of Surrender, which aired in February – while the sixth in the series, Anatomy of Desire, began filming in February. A seventh instalment is already in development, with production due to begin in November this year.
Anatomy of Evil was subsequently sold to 34 countries by distributor Beta Film, with buyers including Netflix, Rai Cinema in Italy and Antena 3 in Spain. Ambrosch himself won an Austrian TV Romy award for the film, having previously earned a German Grimme award for one of his Tatort episodes.
“It’s a series I came up with. I just proposed it to the producer and the director and we developed a unique story,” Ambrosch says of Anatomy. “It’s a very character-driven story, which I like very much. It’s my child.”
Ambrosch’s partnership with Prochaska also includes the 2014 TV movie Sarajevo, about the events that led to the First World War; mystery western feature film The Dark Valley, which starred Sam Riley (SS-GB); and the forthcoming historical drama Maximilian.
Set in the 15th century in the Austrian Middle Ages, the latter retells the love story between Mary, the orphaned daughter of the ruler of the House of Burgundy, and Maximilian, the son of the Roman Emperor, as they try to survive and rule in the battle for supremacy in Europe.
The three-part miniseries is coproduced by MR Film and Beta Film for ZDF and ORF. It stars Jannis Niewoehner, Christa Théret, Alix Poisson, Jean-Hugues Anlgade and Tobias Moretti.
“Maximilian was very intense,” Ambrosch says. “It was very different from pure fiction because the life of Maximilian is known to many. I had to create my own Maximilian out of his historic personality. It was a challenge but I think we managed it.
“Andreas and I have been colleagues and friends for a long time. We’re both very ambitious, so we knew we could create something really important. It was my first chance to do three 90-minute episodes in a historic setting, so it was a big opportunity for me and I immediately said, ‘Yes, let’s do it.’ I love the historic change between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.”
Ambrosch says he spent a year researching the true story behind Maximilian – but admits there’s a strong element of fiction to the tale viewers will see on screen. “That’s the creativity we wanted to give to the series,” he says. “You can’t just make a documentary. You have to create something that’s close to reality, but it’s bigger than reality and hopefully interesting for viewers.”
Ambrosch’s scripts are also quite detailed, ensuring the cast and director can play out his vision in front of the cameras. “I write it as I see it, and not just dialogue,” he says. “We did readings of the script quite a few times and I was on the set for many days, just watching and getting a feel for every actor.”
The German-language production was complicated by filming several scenes in French, but Ambrosch believes it important that European drama use organic languages to help tell the story. “I speak French but not well enough, so we had a translator,” he says. “I wrote it in German but I have a feeling for the French language because I lived in France for a year, so I know a little bit about it.
“It wasn’t clear at the start in which language we were going to shoot. There was a discussion at the very beginning to maybe shoot everything in English, but then we thought about it some more. I had to write the scripts nonetheless, so I wrote them in German and it was then we decided to shoot in two languages, which is of course a challenge.
“We have regional specialities in Europe. France is quite different from Austria, Germany and England, so it’s interesting to see the differences and get the feeling that Maximilian has to overcome the obstacles when he goes from poor and laid-back Austria to modern Burgundy and the French king with his own politics and lifestyle. It’s much more diverse than just shooting it all in English and saying there’s only one world. Back then it was very different and this is a good opportunity to show that.”
As partnerships go, Ambrosch and Prochaska’s is evidently successful, and Ambrosch credits this to a deep understanding between the pair. “The most important thing is we don’t have to use many words to connect,” he explains.
“We are each other’s biggest critics, so there’s a very open-minded atmosphere. I can tell him what he is doing is bullshit and he tells me what I wrote is bullshit and nobody is pissed off afterwards. That’s very important.
“But it’s also important for me to work with other directors because I don’t want to work only with Andreas. I’m doing a film with Stefan Ruzowitzky right now, the Oscar-winning director of Die Fälscher (The Counterfeiters, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2008). It’s called In Hell (working title).”
Describing his writing style, Ambrosch says he first outlines a treatment before starting his research and writing a few pages “to get my thoughts on paper. After that, I let my mind flow free. You have a huge amount of input when you do a year of research, like I did for Maximilian, and then you start to feel the characters and put it on paper. But when the research is done, you have to throw away a lot of ideas and focus on telling the most important stories. That’s the hardest part. The rest is just fun writing.”
And the biggest challenge facing a writer today? “The challenge is to live up to my own ambitions,” he says.
As television drama continues to draw talent from the feature film industry and proves increasingly capable of rivalling the quality and production values offered by movies, Ambrosch readily admits the standards of the small screen have improved significantly – particularly in Germany, where series such as Cold War saga Deutschland 83 are breaking out as global hits.
“It’s difficult to say but, more often than not, the stories in really good TV movies are much better than the films in the cinema,” he says. “It’s a good time for German drama because there’s some money in the market and there’s a need for these kinds of TV series. There’s no other way than to be as ambitious as the UK and the US. You can’t just go on the way you have for the last 20 or 30 years; you have to adapt, and that’s an opportunity for writers and filmmakers in Germany and Austria.
“There are more opportunities in TV but it’s not so easy because you have to appeal to the viewers of public broadcasters. The young viewers are streaming US and British series and the older ones are used to the existing patterns. You need really good stories that producers will risk money on. The market is changing quickly and I’m very interested in where it’s all going to end.”
The themes of US feature film American History X meet true crime in miniseries NSU – German History X. The drama’s producer and directors discuss how they worked together to tell this real story from three different perspectives.
In 1998, American History X told the story of a former neo-Nazi who tries to prevent his younger brother from following the same path he did.
Almost 20 years later, the same right-wing themes are studied in a German miniseries that takes its inspiration from a series of brutal murders and the resultant trial that is still progressing through the courts system.
NSU – German History X opens as a clandestine far-right terrorist group called National Socialist Underground (NSU) begins operating in Germany by gunning down immigrants in cold-blooded acts that became known as the Bosphorus Serial Murders.
Police initially believed the deaths to be the result of infighting between immigrant communities, until links were drawn to three suspects and their right-wing influences.
The fictional series is based on the ongoing trial of Beate Zschäpe, one of the trio accused over the deaths of 10 immigrants between 2000 and 2007 murders. The other two both suspected of involvement killed themselves before they could be brought to trial.
Producer Gabriela Sperl explains: “It was the biggest series of unsolved murders in Germany, which was unprecedented because you have 10 murders and you make the victims look like they are to blame. Then, all of a sudden, you find two guys dead and it’s right-wing terrorism.
“So we started thinking what we could do about this and why it took so long for a country where everything is very well organised like Germany to find the people who did it, to find the murderers. And they still haven’t found them. They still haven’t resolved it.
“Then we asked what do we do with something that’s unresolved – so we tell the story from different angles to get as near to the truth as possible. This is what we did and this is why we did a lot of research and digging and looking under stones. Now we’re further from the truth than we were in 2012!”
Distributed by Beta Film, NSU – German History X aired on ARD-Das Erste in March this year. The show’s cast includes Albrecht Abraham Schuch, Sebastian Urzendowsky, Anna Maria Mühe, Almila Bagriacik and Tom Schilling.
Each installment of the series, known locally as Mitten in Deutschland: NSU, focuses on a different aspect of the story, with episodes titled The Offenders, The Victims and The Investigators. Three directors – Christian Schwochow, Züli Aladag and Florian Cossen – then took charge of each film.
They attribute the idea of focusing each episode on a different perspective to Sperl, with the directors brought on board the project before any words had been committed to the scripts.
“We met with Gabriela quite a few times before the writers were involved and that was a great approach,” says Aladag. “From the beginning we were thinking about three strong perspectives. That’s why we liked Gabriela’s idea – we knew we couldn’t bring the whole truth to the story because it is still going on.”
Schwochow continues: “If you see filmmaking as a quest for truth, perspective is one of the strongest tools you have. In this case, that was the brilliant idea. Gabriela said that if we told the story as if a coin had three sides – one from the side of the neo-Nazis, one from the victims and one from the state – you come to something in between those three parts that is maybe not the whole truth but is very truthful.
“The idea is not having one aesthetic concept or one author, but that every perspective stands on its own. You see three films that look very different but they cross over. When you look at all three of them, you get a brilliant idea of what 3D storytelling looks like.”
The directors also discussed the extent to which continuity should play between each episode, but the idea of one style or tone was quickly dismissed.
“Of course, we discussed whether the films should look the same and if we should have a miniseries where you can’t tell the difference – but if you want that, you shouldn’t ask three directors!” says Schwochow. “Each of us found our own way to tell our story. Sometimes just the three of us would meet so there was always a connection and an exchange of research.”
Cossen describes the events retold in NSU – German History X as “one of the biggest post-war political and criminal scandals,” adding to his desire to honour the victims through his work.
“They have been very quickly forgotten,” he says. “Just facts, numbers and dates – no human beings, no families, no biographies. So this is also to remember the victims who have been horribly treated by the German authorities, which can never be amended.”
The miniseries marks the latest show coming out of Germany that analyses the country’s past, following dramas such as Generation War and Deutschland 83.
“We have a very special history so we have special stories to tell and that shouldn’t be forgotten,” Sperl explains. “The fact that Nazi ideology is resurging is really frightening.”
As a result, the production, led by Wiedemann & Berg Television, was kept under wraps to avoid unwanted attention while the real trial continued its passage through the courts.
Sperl continues: “We kept it very quiet – we didn’t talk about it. We didn’t do any press and kept it very low key. We didn’t want to provoke any legal problems or for Nazis to disrupt the shooting. You never know.”
The subject matter led to several additional hurdles for the crew, however – the most notable of which was finding extras willing to play Nazis on camera.
“We had a challenge to find extras who would shave their heads and scream all that Nazi bullshit, to give their face for very little money,” Schwochow says. “We didn’t want to employ real Nazis. We had a person who did all the extras casting and one day she came up with an idea to ask all the left-wing supporters to take part and they helped us. All the people you see in the film are from the political left. That was a hard thing to solve because we had a lot of extras.”
Another challenge was the script itself, which the producers and directors determined must be authentic without turning the production into a documentary.
Aladag notes: “The challenge for all of us was to be precise, to be authentic, to have a great script. We worked on the script together until we were really happy with it. We didn’t want to shoot before it was finished. So each of us started really early. Shooting took six months to prepare.”
The directors also sought to make their own films stand out in their own way, creating new obstacles. Schwochow’s installment, for example, had no scored soundtrack, instead using Nazi rock music in the background.
Cossen explains: “The musician and the author recreated Nazi rock because we didn’t want to pay any royalties to real Nazi bands. But you hardly notice. You have to think how they think in order to not only make it good but to compose that kind of evil music so that it gets to you and works emotionally.”
Beyond the storyline and its direct resonance in Germany, Schwochow ultimately sees NSU – Germany History X as a warning against political and social issues affecting much of Europe as right-wing politics find new footholds in many countries.
“You don’t have to explain what’s going on in Europe at the moment but we’re facing so much racism everywhere and we’re building a fence around the continent,” the director says. “People should be very careful who they vote for and who they follow.”
Cossen says he wants the audience to feel “true empathy” with the victims, not just pity, “and understand what it means to be in their situation; to be more sensitive against foreigners and immigrants and to be more sensitive against our own inner racism.”
He adds: “There are many things we want people to think about. There’s not just one focus. We’re also curious about what lies between the films – what’s not told is as important as what is.”