Tag Archives: Dynamic Television

Double take

Flemish drama De Dag (The Day) puts an innovative spin on the contemporary crime genre, with each episode showing a new perspective of a hostage situation. Its writers and producers tell DQ about the challenges and opportunities presented by this approach.

De Dag (The Day) is bang on trend with its central premise. Like Danish dramas Greyzone and Beneath the Surface and international coproduction Ransom, the Flemish series centres on a hostage situation and the law enforcement officials working to end it.

But where it stands apart is in its unique 12-episode structure. Set across a single day, each episode bounces back and forth between the different perspectives of those involved in the bank siege. The odd-numbered episodes present the police point of view as they attempt to end the crisis, while the even numbers focus on those barricaded inside the bank – the hostages and the perpetrators.

More precisely, each pair of episodes (one and two, three and four and so on) reflect events during the same time period. It means an odd-numbered episode cannot be trusted on its own, because the next instalment turns what you think may have happened on its head, ensuring a thrilling, compulsive ride to the end.

Jonas Geirnaert, who wrote The Day with Julie Mahieu, says the idea to tell the story from different perspectives emerged during their very first brainstorming session almost 10 years ago. “We first thought about the hostage situation, and what’s good about it is it has a very clear division between inside the bank and outside,” he says. “The first time you see outside, you don’t know what’s going on inside, and then you see the same events through the eyes of who’s inside. And the thing about a hostage situation is it creates immediate tension. You want to know how it ends. People are in constant danger. It’s a really good way to make your audience sit through your show.”

The Day uses two-episode blocks to tell one part of the story from two different perspectives

With an €8m (US$9.8m) budget – big by Belgian standards but tiny compared with those handed to US series – the writers knew their scripts needed to stand out and were happy to take their time to get this complex puzzle right. Across each two-episode block, events from one angle are revealed to be completely different from another perspective, but in a way that doesn’t leave the viewer feeling tricked. Instead, it simply fuels the desire to watch more than one episode per sitting to understand the true nature of what is going on.

Geirnaert wrote the odd episodes and Mahieu picked up the even ones, though everything except writing the scripts was done in partnership. Any changes in one script also meant linked episodes needed to be rewritten to ensure events and reveals matched up.

“We did all our homework before we started writing,” Geirnaert explains. “Once we knew it was going to be a hostage situation in the bank, we knew what the perpetrators were going after and then we worked on the characters. It happened organically. As you make the story, you know which characters are going to be prominent in each episode. The ones that were most interesting to us, we tried to weave throughout the series.

“The first two months before we started writing the series, we were standing by a whiteboard with the whole scheme of the 12 episodes mapped out and a different line for every character to see what their evolution was throughout the series. It was interesting to see. It wasn’t that you had the story and you had to push the characters in the story; sometimes the character forces your story to go a different way because it feels right.”

The drama centres on a hostage situation as part of a bank robbery

At the start of the second episode, which is the first to show events from the bank robbers’ perspective, we are also introduced to many of the people who will become hostages by the time the credits roll. Geirnaert says it’s crucial viewers get to know them before they are thrown into the extreme circumstances that follow, increasing empathy and providing an element of backstory than can also be referred to later on.

“You have to give them a baseline, so we show how they act normally in their families, having breakfast, couples having an argument,” he says. “You have to install your characters in a normal way and then you see how they behave while the hostage situation is taking place and you can see that difference. If you start with them in that different situation, you don’t get to know them in a normal way. We tried to keep it compact because we want to go to where the drama happens but it was quite important to have those scenes.”

The series, which debuted on Belgium’s Telenet last month, premiered at Berlinale in February. It comes from Flemish producers FBO and Woestijnvis and is distributed worldwide by Dynamic Television. International buyers include Germany’s ZDFneo.

The Day was first pitched in 2012 to executive producers Hilde de Laere and Michiel Devlieger, who were instantly won over by the concept.

Michiel Devlieger

“It’s not just a police drama but a very human drama, which means it’s not just another cop show,” says Devlieger, head of drama at Woestijnvis. “That combination worked for us. Then it took some time for them to work on it, so it was a question of supporting them and giving them time and space to work it out. It was a great challenge because it’s such a complex puzzle. But you don’t want the viewer to have the feeling they are looking at a puzzle.”

The producers also faced several hurdles when pulling the show together. In particular, finding the main square where the bank is located – and which later becomes the scene of the police operation to free the hostages – proved to be a major challenge.

“It was quite a big search to find the perfect location,” Devlieger says. “We filmed it in Bruges, but it could have been anywhere – it’s a square. But even then, because of how it was written and what we wanted to happen, it was quite a challenge to find the right place. It took quite some time. We had to adjust some things in the screenplay to make it work but it was a very good location.”

“That was always our intent when we were writing it and thinking about it to make something that would appeal internationally,” Mahieu notes of the show’s nondescript location. “We thought about that both in the story and image-wise. It’s a story that could be told anywhere. It’s about people, bad guys, police; it’s not typically a Belgian story. That was always the incentive, to make it a very universal story.”

Due to The Day’s winter setting and the fact events take place in a single 24-hour period, three film crews were assembled to shoot simultaneously, “which was possible because there are actors who never meet,” adds FBO’s Hilde De Laere.

International broadcasters to have picked up the show include Germany’s ZDFneo

On set, Geirnaert and Mahieu also worked as showrunners of their particular episodes. “Since we wrote the story, we knew what was going on so we made sure everyone knew what they had to know,” Mahieu explains.

Working alongside directors Gilles Coulier and Dries Vos, the writers took inspiration from the likes of British drama Southcliffe when it came to achieving the grey, misty atmosphere they wanted to portray on screen. Real-life details were also important to the creators, such as the search for a mobile phone charger in episode one.

“That was the approach for the whole series,” says Devlieger. “We wanted it drenched in reality. That’s where the researchers came in because they really researched not what is the most exciting way but how such things actually happen. When this situation occurs, how would negotiators do this? In our feedback from people who work in the field, they really appreciate that and recognise the reality of it.”

Hilde de Laere

The writers were also surprised at the tactics used by the negotiators to build relationships with hostage-takers over the phone. Their research found the usual way to answer a call from them would be to simply say, ‘Good morning. How are you?’

“That’s what you have to do, you have to calm them down,” Mahieu says. “You have to build a connection. You have to create a feeling of trust and although it’s a very odd situation, you have to make sure that they want to speak to you, that they have a feeling that there’s somebody there they can talk to. It’s their job, that’s what they have to do and they do it in a lot of different ways. Never forget, it’s still a human being on the other side, no matter what they’re doing.”

The authenticity of the action adds an extra layer of quality to a series that ultimately stands out because of the way the story unfolds from alternate viewpoints. Devlieger sums it up when he says the series was written “to get viewers addicted.”

He adds: “You can really install red herrings in the odd episodes and surprise the viewer in the even episodes with how they thought it would be and how it actually was. That worked very well. In that way, they did a really good job in the writing. When you see an odd episode, you’re really curious to see what is happening on the other side and, at the end of a block, you just want to know where it’s going next.”

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East Los High

Now in its fourth season, East Los High broke new ground as it told the story of a group of students at high school. Producer Wise Entertainment shares seven facts about the half-hour series.

When it launched in 2013, East Los High broke new ground for its authentic storytelling and discussion of thought-provoking social issues.

Set against a backdrop of dance, romance and true-to-life characters, the half-hour series follows a group of teenagers navigating their final years at an East Lost Angeles high school.

A Hulu original drama, East Los High is now in its fourth season, starring Gabriel Chavarria, Danielle Vega, Carlito Olivero, Alexandra Rodriguez, Vannessa Vasquez, JD Pardo and Prince Royce.

East Los High is said to tackle real-life issues in gritty yet sympathetic ways

It was created by Carlos Portugal and Kathleen Bedoya and is produced by Wise Entertainment. All four seasons have been picked up for distribution (excluding the US) by Dynamic Television.

Here, Hector Ceballos, manager of research and development at Wise Entertainment, gives DQ seven facts you should know about East Los High.

1. It’s high school like you’ve never seen it. A Hulu original series, East Los High revolves around the lives of a group of teens navigating their final years at an urban high school in East LA. The school’s dance crew, the Bomb Squad, takes centre stage as the series tackles real-life issues in meaningful ways that are gritty yet sympathetic. Romance, nail-biting competition and complex yet relatable characters bring high-stakes drama that keeps viewers hooked and coming back for more.

2. It’s making history. East Los High was the first English-language show with an all-Latino cast, creators and writers, and was born out of the recognition that Latino audiences in the US are underserved and fatigued by their stereotypical representation in film and television. East Los High is now also the longest running original series on Hulu, consistently ranking as one of the platform’s top shows. The Los Angeles Times recently called East Los High “a TV unicorn in the broadcast marketplace” and Variety called it a “revolutionary show.”

The show follows the school’s dance crew, the Bomb Squad

3. It was created out of the box. Wise Entertainment, the production company behind East Los High, uses research and meaningful partnerships with an advisory committee of more than 25 non-profits to inform the development and production of the show. Connecting to the community and “on the ground” experts helps to keep a finger on the pulse of what is most important to the show’s audience, while working in tandem to create meaningful characters and stories. In fact, thanks to focus groups with teens in East LA after the table read of the pilot episode, the show’s producers decided to cast Gabriel Chavarria in the role of heartthrob Jacob instead of bad-boy character Abraham.

4. It spawned a whole new hashtag. Shortly after the season one premiere, fans created the hashtag #ELHAddicts which immediately started trending. The series, which reached 153 countries, is the most social show on Hulu with a passionate and highly engaged community of fans that exceeds 4.5 million people across social networks weekly. The show also has a robust transmedia experience on www.eastloshigh.com, including more than 100 pieces of extra content.

East Los High is the longest running original series on Hulu

5. It’s award-winning. For its nuanced portrayal of Latino teens and the issues they face, East Los High has received critical acclaim, including five Emmy nominations, a Cannes Lion Entertainment Award, recognition as Adweek’s Hottest Webseries, and two Sentinel for Health Awards for serial drama. It was also a semi-finalist nominee in the People’s Choice Awards for favourite premium drama series and won a National Hispanic Media Coalition Impact Award for outstanding online series, among many other honours.

6. It has catapulted careers. The show has served as a launching pad for new Latino talent in Hollywood like Gabriel Chavarria (Jacob), who will appear in the upcoming feature film War of the Planet of the Apes, Tracy Perez (Vanessa) who can now be seen on FX’s The Strain and Alicia Marie Sixtos (Maya), who just landed a regular role in TNT’s Monsters of God.

7. It has star power. Throughout the course of four seasons, the series has featured an impressive list of guest stars, including bachata superstar Prince Royce; Academy Award nominee Catalina Sandino Moreno; JD Pardo of Twilight: Breaking Dawn and NBC’s Revolution; Carlito Olivero from The X Factor; Christina Milian; Pia Mia; Perez Hilton; Stephen ‘Twitch’ Boss of So You Think You Can Dance fame; Orlando Jones and more.

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Making Madiba

For the first time, the life of Nelson Mandela will be retold across six hours of television. DQ speaks to the cast and crew about bringing Mandela’s personal and political struggle to the small screen.

In the hours after Nelson Mandela’s death on December 5, 2013, former US president Bill Clinton tweeted his condolences. “I will never forget my friend Madiba,” he wrote.

The name of the Thembu clan to which Mandela belonged, ‘Madiba’ quickly became associated with him as a term of respect and endearment – and now lends itself to the title of a six-hour miniseries that charts the activist and politician’s journey to bring racial equality and democracy to South Africa.

Directed by Kevin Hooks, the event series is based on two Mandela books, Conversations with Myself and Nelson Mandela by Himself.

Laurence Fishburne stars as Mandela alongside a cast that also includes David Harewood and Orlando Jones. The latter portrays Oliver Tambo, president of the African National Congress (ANC) from 1967 to 1991 and founder of the ANC Youth League together with Mandela and Walter Sisulu.

Speaking to DQ during filming in South Africa, Fishburne describes the opportunity to play Mandela as “wonderful.”

“I accepted it immediately,” he recalls. “I was very humbled to be asked. Like many people, I have been inspired by his life and his story. It’s just a great honour to be doing it.

“What’s great about this is we have six hours to tell the story. It’s much bigger than just his life. It was very important [to Mandela] that viewers understand the struggle for the end of apartheid was not just down to him. It was a group effort. All organisations came together. The series has much more depth than other TV shows or films about Mandela.”

Madiba stars Laurence Fishburne as Nelson Mandela
Madiba stars Laurence Fishburne as Nelson Mandela

Though the actor never met Mandela in person, he acquainted himself with several people that were close to the former South Africa president, including Zelda La Grange, his personal secretary.

“I spent some time at the Nelson Mandela Foundation looking at a lot of personal effects and writings, and I also went down to where he grew up,” Fishburne says. “Being here in South Africa, you can reach out and touch the history. It adds a level of authenticity you cannot manufacture anywhere else.”

The former Hannibal and CSI star admits the most challenging aspect of playing Mandela has been the “gruelling” production schedule, but jokes: “I’m pretty good at picking up accents.”

He adds: “This is a universal story and I don’t think it will ever get old. Mandela was one of the giants of history and as such he will not fade. His legend will get bigger and bigger.”

Madiba is produced by Blue Ice Pictures and Out of Africa Entertainment in association with Leftbank Pictures and Cinema Gypsy Productions. The show is set to premiere on BET Networks in the US in 2017, while worldwide distributor Dynamic Television has already sold it to eTV in South Africa.

Blue Ice president Lance Samuels – who executive produces Madiba with Mandela’s grandson Kweku Mandela plus Daniel Iron, Neil Tabatznik, Steven Silver, Andy Harries and Loretha Jones – says the project evolved from his belief that it is impossible to do justice to Mandela’s story in the running time of a feature film.

“So we decided to do a miniseries, which gives us the time and opportunity to explore the man, the myth and the mystery,” he explains. “But to understand what Nelson Mandela achieved, you need to understand what he was up against. So we also explore his enemies and what they were going through. They believed in what they were doing and, by covering both sides, you get a better picture of Mandela.

The show will make its debut next year on BET Networks in the US

“When we met him before he died to ask for permission [to make the series], it was one of the most amazing moments of my life. When we spoke to him about it – and this is also prevalent in his books – he said by all means make the series but remember it’s not just me. There were hundreds of people who made sacrifices. That’s why we also covered Tambo and Sisulu, to tell the story of those who helped bring South Africa to freedom.”

On set, Samuels says the “amazing” support from local residents made production much easier as the crew used as many real locations as possible, with the exception of Robben Island – where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison – which was replicated in a warehouse.

Describing the visual style of Madiba, production designer Robert van de Coolwijk says: “We used a lot of pastel colours – earthy greens, reds and ochers. We didn’t want things to jump out at you so we toned down some colours. The pictures are quite simplistic. At that time in South Africa, many people were living in survival mode. The things they had were to survive, they had a purpose. So there was a contrast with the people living in townships in poverty and the people in government.”

The crew rebuilt Vilakazi Street, in Orlando West, Soweto, where Mandela lived from 1946 to 1962. “It was interesting to see how we could get a lot of mileage out of it,” explains van de Coolwijk, whose credits include The Book of Negroes and Generation Kill. “If you changed the angle just enough, it was another road. So it was used as other roads in the township, especially during the student riots in 1976.

“The other houses are a facade but we actually built Mandela House. We built the village where he grew up, Robben Island and the courthouse. It was a journey of discovery for me and the crew. It’s not just fiction – this is stuff that actually happened that had a big impact on this country.”

mandela-screen-boxWriters including Paul Webb, Jane Maggs and Janine Eser came on board to work through Mandela’s life and bring his complex story to the screen, before Kathleen McGhee-Anderson came in towards the end of the writing process to bring together various drafts to form the final six shooting scripts.

Madiba is “biblical in its scope, it’s epic,” McGhee-Anderson says. “Because there’s such a vast tapestry, because he means so much to a nation and to the world and because so many people know this story and so much has been written about him, the big challenge was getting it right. There’s more information about Nelson Mandela than any character or figure I’ve ever researched, perhaps with the exception of Winston Churchill or George Washington.”

The presence of Mandela’s grandson Kweko Mandela proved invaluable, therefore, to help find the central character’s voice, both on page and on camera. But McGhee-Anderson, who is now an executive producer on OWN Network’s original drama Greenleaf, is quick to point out that Madiba is not a history book or a documentary.

“We’re talking about a drama here at the end of the day,” she says. “It’s a drama that has to take dramatic licence in order to move the story forward, in order to cover the plot points to reach the climactic moment that the end of every episode has to reach. It’s a challenge in finding that point that feels both satisfying and at the same time suspenseful enough to move the story forward and keep the viewer coming back.”

Kevin Hooks directs the miniseries, which comprises six episodes

Mandela’s story is undoubtedly worthy of being brought to screen – but why is now the right time for Madiba, following on the heels of big-screen efforts Long Walk to Freedom, Invictus and others?

“It’s the most important story South Africa has to offer,” Samuels says. “Even though there have been a number of movies and documentaries made on Nelson Mandela, a definitive series has never been made. That’s what we set out to do, and I think we have achieved it.”

And for the actor to play Mandela, there was only ever one choice: “We went after him from day one,” Samuels adds. “When we found out Laurence had always wanted to play him, it was a marriage made in heaven. He came on research trips and we took him to where Nelson Mandela was born. He was amazing. The amount of work and effort he put in was spectacular. He knocks it out of the park.”

Before she finished scriptwriting, McGhee-Anderson reveals she was able to sit in on several cast rehearsals and caught Fishburne take to his latest role.

“The first time I heard Laurence Fishburne perform Nelson Mandela, I understood immediately why we have another Mandela on screen,” she says. “Hearing Fishburne become Mandela brought tears to my eyes. I understood he brings a quality to it I hadn’t heard before, and that’s what happens when you have a great actor.”

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Our friends in the frozen north

Nordic drama has made its mark on the international stage over the last few years. But what’s coming next? A good source of information is the Nordisk Film & TV Fund, which provides regular updates on shows in development, production and distribution. So this week we look at some of the latest developments from the region.

next-summerNext Summer: Bob Film is remaking Norwegian comedy Next Summer for Kanal5/Discovery in Sweden. The original version aired on TVNorge/Discovery and was one of the country’s most popular local TV dramas. The Swedish remake, which will air in 2017, centres on a man who shares a summer house with his wife and in-laws in Stockholm’s archipelago. Bob Film also remade the Finnish drama Nurses for TV4 Sweden. That show, known locally as Syrror, launched on October 19, attracting an audience of one million. It’s part of wider trend of local Nordic adaptations that also includes Gåsmamman and Black Widows. Bob Film is also working with Sweetwater on a crime drama called Missing (Saknad) for CMore and TV4, which focuses on the investigation into the murder of a young girl in a Swedish Bible-belt town.

Bonusfamiljen (The Bonus Family): Nordisk Film & TV Fond has just allocated a total of NOK9.4m (US$1.14m) to a slate of new film and TV projects. One of them is season two of The Bonus Family, a comedy drama about a recomposed family and the complications that go with it. Season one is due to air on SVT in 2017, as well as on NRK, YLE, RUV and DR. Season two, granted NOK2.4m (US$290,000), started filming in September and will continue until February 2017.

downshifters_1Downshifters: This Finnish series has just secured a French sales rep (ACE Entertainment) while Sweden’s Anagram has optioned remake rights for its own market. The 10-part comedy from Yellow Film & TV has been generating a good buzz since it launched on OTT service Elisa in late 2015. More recently, it aired on YLE2 and established itself as the second most watched programme. The series tells the story of a couple who face financial problems and are forced to cut down on their extravagant lifestyle. A second series, Upshifters, will launch on Elisa in December 2016.

The Rain: News of this Danish show has been doing the rounds in the last couple of weeks. Produced by Miso Film (Dicte, 1864, Acquitted), The Rain is a dystopian drama commissioned by Netflix. The series is set in Copenhagen 10 years after a biological catastrophe that wipes out most of the population in Scandinavia and sees two young siblings embark on a search for safety. Guided only by their father’s notebook about the virus and the hazards of this new world, they start a dangerous journey through the country and join up with a group of other young survivors. Miso has had a busy few months, with the second season of Acquitted recently launching on TV2 in Norway.

midnight-sunMidnight Sun: This Swedish/French crime show recently debuted to 1.39 million viewers (38.1% share) on SVT1 in the Sunday 21.00 slot. According to the channel, this performance is comparable with The Bridge (Bron/Broen). Midnight Sun also trended at number two on Twitter – and online viewers, which are still to be added to the count, could pass 200,000. The show also secured strong reviews in the Swedish media, with five stars out of five in Aftonbladet. Elsewhere in Scandinavia, Midnight Sun will premiere on RUV on December 5. DR, NRK and MTV3 are likely to air the show, which is distributed internationally by StudioCanal, in early 2017.

nobelNobel: Trapped and Nobel were among 26 European fiction TV series selected for the Prix Europa Media awards last month. Trapped, an Icelandic crime show, won Best European TV Series while Nobel, a Norwegian political/war drama, won Best European TV Movie/Miniseries. Nobel was described as “a precisely crafted original script, perfectly executed and directed, that takes the viewer on a journey into a world of lies, betrayal, mistrust and political games.” Produced by Monster Scripted for NRK, Nobel secured 800,000 viewers for its first episode across NRK1 and NRK streaming service NRK.TV. Both Trapped and Nobel were supported by Nordisk Film & TV Fond. Nobel was directed by Per Olav Sørensen, who also directed The Heavy Water War.

heartless-emilie-claraHeartless: In a recent interview with The Nordisk Film & TV Fond, SVoD service Walter Presents’ curator Walter Iuzzolino said 25-30% of the platform’s shows are from Scandinavia. In terms of titles doing well, he mentioned Heartless: “Our curated programme goes way beyond the tradition of Nordic Noir that has been established by the BBC. I would say that 30% of our audience is 16 to 34, the rest 35-plus. The sexy Danish vampire series Heartless, for example, was a huge hit among 16-24s. Normally I hate fantasy and sci-fi but it’s elegant, poetic, cleverly done and an interesting portrayal of a family –  a sort of vampire version of The Legacy. It was a huge success, pushed only by word of mouth.”

Watchdog: At last month’s Mipcom market in Cannes, ZDF Enterprises announced an exclusive first-look rights deal for all scripted content from the Finnish producer Fisher King. Matti Halonen, Fisher King MD and producer, said: “ZDF Enterprises is a well-established company that can give a lot of support to a smaller player like Fisher King.” The first joint project that ZDFE is working on is the upcoming political thriller series Watchdog. Set in present-day Helsinki, The Hague and London, it’s described as an adrenaline trip into the heart of European justice policy and security regulations concerning source protection and privacy insurance. Fisher King is also behind Bordertown, which is represented worldwide by Federation Entertainment and has been sold to Sky Deutschland and CanalPlay France, while English-language series Crypted is also in its pipeline.

Deadwind: Paris-based financing and distribution boutique About Premium Content (APC) recently picked up Finnish crime drama Deadwind. The 12-part series is about a detective in her 30s who is trying to get over her husband’s death when she discovers the body of a young woman on a construction site. At Mipcom, APC launched Norwegian drama thriller Valkyrien, which is produced by Tordenfilm for NRK. It also distributes another Norwegian show, the youth-oriented Young & Promising, which was recently sold to the UK, Germany and France and has a US deal is in negotiation.

Dan Sommerdahl: This autumn it was announced that Nikolaj Scherfig (The Bridge) would be co-creator/head-writer on Dan Sommerdahl, a new series based on Danish author Anna Grue’s bestselling book series. Distributor Dynamic Television (Trapped) is pre-selling the series on behalf of Germany’s NDF and Denmark’s Nordisk Film. TV2 Denmark is attached and a German broadcaster will soon be announced. Scherfig said the project is different from classic Scandi noir: “It is a tight, clean crime series reflecting on life outside cities understanding how modernity and social development affect life in the province.” Klaus Zimmermann, Dynamic co-MD, told nordicfilmandtvnews.com: “NDF originally acquired the rights to the books and wanted to make it in the tradition of a German crime series with German actors for an international market. But then we felt it made more sense to make it as an original Danish show with a Danish writer and Danish actors. It’s simply the right way to tell the story.”

Hassel-Ola-Rapace_small-1Hassel: Speaking to the Nordisk Film & TV Fond about Viaplay’s strategy for coproducing original content for the Nordic region, CEO Jonas Karlén said upcoming original Nordic scripted series on Viaplay include Swedish Dicks, Svartsjön/Black Lake, Hassel, Our Time Is Now and Occupied season two. Hassel is a Nordic noir starring Ola Rapace as the iconic detective created by author Olov Svedelid. The show is produced by Nice Drama in coproduction with Beta Film, which handles global sales, and is due to launch in late 2017.

springtideSpring Tide: Eight brand new Nordic TV dramas have been selected for The Lübeck Festival’s Nordic Film Days. “TV drama is the big new thing. It was time for us to open up our festival to TV series, as Germans are so fond of Nordic noir,” said the festival’s long-time artistic director Linde Fröhlich. Shows to be introduced include Splitting Up Together (DK), Living with my Ex (FI), Trapped (IS), Nobel (NO), and Modus, Hashtag and Spring Tide (SE). The latter crime drama, based on the novel by Rolf and Cilla Börjlind, is about two cops who come together to solve the murder of a pregnant woman. The show is distributed internationally by Endemol Shine International.

Below the Surface: This is a new drama based on an idea by Adam Price (Borgen) and Søren Sveistrup (The Killing) – now principals in Studiocanal-backed firm SAM. The thriller series centres on an operation to rescue 15 hostages from a Copenhagen subway train. Price and Sveistrup said: “There is something both eerie and fascinating about [taking hostages] as a criminal act. The close and complex relationship between the hostage and hostage-taker immediately opens up strong character-development possibilities and can also put a number of highly topical issues about our time to the forefront, such as fear of terrorism.“ The eight-part series has received DKK14m (US$2.08m) in production support from the DFI’s Public Service Fund and will air on Kanal5/Discovery Networks.

skamSkam: Cult Norwegian youth series Shame (Skam) launched on NRK and was recently acquired by DR3 for Denmark. Danish newspaper Politiken called it “a youth series about high-school life that makes Norway cool for the first time.” Steffen Raastrup, director of DR3, said: “The series’ premise is that when you’re young, you should not be ashamed of who you are but stand up for yourself and deal with the fear that many feel during their formative teen years.”  Skam – which is now up to three seasons in Norway and is a strong performer on social media – has also been acquired by SVT in Sweden and RUV in Iceland.

Interference: This is an eight-part English- and French-language sci-fi thriller in development by Stockholm-based Palladium Fiction. Palladium, which is minority-controlled by Sony Pictures Television (SPT), is producing the show alongside Atlantique Productions. SPT is distributing the show internationally. The Palladium team was also behind the critically acclaimed drama Jordskott, and is now working on a second season of the show. Palladium is also developing an English-language project with UK writer/producer Nicola Larder.

Established in 1990 and based in Oslo, the Nordisk Film & TV Fonds primary purpose is to promote film and TV productions of high quality in the five Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden). It is funded by 17 partners: The Nordic Council of Ministers, five national film institutes/funds and 11 public service and private TV stations within the region. Its annual budget is approximately NOK100m.

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Indies bet heavily on book rights

Tony Marchant
Tony Marchant

In previous columns and features, DQ has explored the difficulty producers face in securing the services of top screenwriters.

One way of addressing this problem is to control the rights to strong source material. If you secure an option on a great novel, it’s an easier way of hooking a decent writer than going to them with an unproven idea.

Indie producer Bad Wolf, for example, was able to secure the services of the sought-after Jack Thorne by waving Philip Pullman’s fantasy epic His Dark Materials under his nose. And The Ink Factory reeled in David Farr by inviting him to make his mark on John Le Carré’s 1993 espionage novel The Night Manager.

Perhaps this is why we’re suddenly seeing so many book-rights deals bubbling to the surface. Last week, we referenced a couple of new examples in this column. And this week indie producer Dancing Ledge Productions has signed a deal with publisher HarperCollins for the TV rights to novels by Alistair Maclean, the legendary writer of books such as Guns of Navarone.

At the same time, the company announced that Tony Marchant (The Secret Agent) had come on board to adapt the first novel, San Andreas; a thriller set on board a torpedoed Second World War hospital ship as it attempts to make its way back across the North Atlantic to Scotland while a saboteur picks off crew members.

San Andreas
San Andreas is being adapted by Dancing Ledge Productions

Laurence Bowen, CEO of Dancing Ledge Productions, said: “We are lucky to be living and working in a golden age of television drama with a huge demand internationally for high-end adaptations and TV events that can be channel-defining. I doubt there are many bookshelves in the UK that don’t have at least one Alistair Maclean thriller, so the opportunity to work with HarperCollins to adapt a number of them for screen is incredibly exciting. If you then add a writer with the talent of Tony Marchant to the mix, we have a wonderful marriage of nail-biting action and emotional complexity.”

Under the terms of the arrangement, each novel will be structured as a four or six-part event miniseries that will build on Maclean’s trademark skill of creating thrilling adventure that appeals to hardcore fans and new audiences alike.

Katie Fulford, special projects director at HarperCollins Publishers, added: “Maclean is one of our most treasured authors. We’re committed to ensuring our heritage brands continue to grow and that we constantly seek new ways to tell these classic stories.”

Other new book-option deals along similar lines include Sid Gentle Films’ acquisition of the rights to Elizabeth Jane Howard’s acclaimed book series The Cazalet Chronicles, which is set between the 1930s and the 1950s and tells the story of three generations of the Cazalet family.

Elizabeth Jane Howard passed away in 2014
Elizabeth Jane Howard passed away in 2014

Explaining why she picked up the five Cazalet novels, Sid Gentle’s Sally Woodward Gentle said: “Elizabeth Jane Howard is an extraordinary writer, a highly skilled storyteller of understatement and deceptive simplicity. The novels are totally addictive with the ability to floor you with their turn of events. They are set in the middle of the 20th century but the themes of love, loss, repression, sex and family ties are shot through with 21st century resonance.”

Woodward Gentle has already proved that the books-as-bait model can work with SS-GB, a series for the BBC that is just coming to market. Based on Len Deighton’s novel, it has been adapted by James Bond writers Robert Wade and Neal Purvis.

One of the indies we talked about in last week’s column was Buccaneer, which joined forces with author Rose Tremain. And Buccaneer is back in the news this week following a deal with Trainspotting creator Irvine Welsh to bring his novel Crime to TV.

This setup is slightly different from some of the other examples because it comes with a screenwriter attached, Welsh’s longtime collaborator Dean Cavanagh. Where it resembles the other deals, however, is in the way that strong source material can help producers build a talent package that interests broadcasters.

Irvine Welsh
Irvine Welsh

In this case, for example, actor Dougray Scott has come on board to star in and executive produce the six-part project: “When I read Irvine Welsh for the first time I knew I was in the company of a unique and utterly brilliant voice. After finishing the novel Crime, I knew it was a story that I just had to help bring to the screen.”

There’s another book-based story of interest this week. BBC2 in the UK has just announced that it is adapting Ian McGuire’s Man Booker-longlisted whaling novel The North Water in partnership with See-Saw Films. In this case, Andrew Haigh has come on board to turn the story into a six-part mystery/survival drama.

The North Water tells the story of a disgraced former army surgeon who signs on as a ship’s doctor on a whaling expedition to the Arctic. On board, he meets Henry Drax, an amoral harpooner. Hoping to escape his past, the doctor instead finds himself trapped on board with a murderous psychopath.

Haigh’s involvement is an example of the new fluidity that exists in the TV business. Until now, he has been best known as a movie screenwriter – first with Weekend and then with 45 Years, which enjoyed a lot of positive feedback on the festival circuit in 2015/2016.

So the combination of a strong core story, a proven production team (See-Saw’s TV credits include Top of the Lake) and an emerging filmwriting talent was enough to attract BBC2, thus circumventing the issue of chasing overworked TV A-Listers.

Andrew Haigh
Andrew Haigh

Elsewhere, DQ’s parent publication C21 reports this week that TV2 Denmark, Nordisk Film Production, NDF Germany and distributor Dynamic Television have greenlit a crime drama based on the Dan Sommerdahl crime novel franchise by Anna Grue (books again!). For this project, The Bridge’s co-creator Nikolaj Scherfig has been signed up to act as head writer.

Described as a family-oriented take on the Nordic noir genre, the series centres on a detective who solves murder cases in a coastal town. It goes into production in summer 2017.

Dynamic Television VP of coproductions and acquisitions Jan Bennemann said there’s “huge demand right now for Scandinavian crime drama with a blue-sky procedural element. Dan Sommerdahl expands upon this with a very likeable main character and an overall lighter tone, making it an ideal fit for a wider audience.”

Seven books out of a planned 12-part franchise have so far been published, and the agreement with the author includes expanding the property and its characters – raising the prospect of a long-running franchise.

Nikolaj Scherfig
Nikolaj Scherfig

Scherfig’s comments underline the way the right project can lure in-demand writers. He said Dan Sommerdahl is the first in a line of projects that offered to him with “something different to the classic Scandic noir genre: a tight, clean crime series reflecting on life outside cities, understanding how modernity and social development affect provincial life.”

Away from the world of book rights, other interesting stories this week include the news that US network NBC has picked up the rights to adapt a time-travel crime drama from Argentina’s Telefe. The original 2011 series was called Un Año Para Recordar (A Year to Remember). It tells the story of a female detective who goes back in time after accidentally killing her husband.

The writer/producer signed up to oversee the adaptation is Michael Foley, whose most recent credit is the ABC/Shondaland series How To Get Away With Murder. Prior to that, Foley was involved in productions such as Revenge and Unforgettable.

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Israeli and Icelandic formats crack US

Casey Bloys
HBO’s Casey Bloys

Israel’s Keshet International (KI) looks to have achieved another major breakthrough in the scripted formats sector. After In Treatment, Homeland and The A Word (all based on Keshet formats), it has now teamed up with HBO in the US on a drama about the true-life kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers in 2014.

The 10-episode series is the first project to be produced for HBO by its former boss Michael Lombardo, who has a production deal with the network. The creative team behind the show, which will be filmed in Israel, is headed by Hagai Levi and Noah Stollman.

“HBO has always been a home to me. I’m so thrilled to work with them again, and regroup with my good friends from Keshet,” said Levi, who also created hit series The Affair for Showtime.

HBO president Casey Bloys added: “We’re excited to work with Keshet and this talented and creative group led by Hagai Levi. We look forward to sharing this important story with our subscribers.”

The series centres on the disappearance and subsequent search for the three teenagers amid escalating tension and conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. It will be distributed internationally by KI. Avi Nir, the head of KI’s parent company Keshet Media Group, said: “We are thrilled to partner with HBO, the ultimate quality TV powerhouse, and to bring together Israel’s finest in TV and film, led by Hagai Levi, Noah Stollman and Joseph Cedar [the director of the as-yet-unnamed series]. We are all ready for the challenging journey on which this extraordinary story will take us.”

Iceland's Réttur is being adapted for NBC
Iceland’s Réttur is being adapted for NBC

Another interesting story on the format front is NBC’s decision to pilot Infamous, a legal drama based on a 2009 Icelandic series called Réttur. The new version is being written/executive produced by Eli Attie (House) and executive produced by the team behind This Is Us (John Requa and Glenn Ficarra).

Infamous centres on a hotshot attorney who is jailed for a murder he doesn’t remember, and believes he didn’t commit. Six years later, he’s released on a technicality and tries to juggle his day job with finding out what actually happened to put him in jail. The original, created by Sigurjón Kjartansson, ran for three seasons.

Still in the US, ABC is piloting a new series called Protect & Serve. The series centres on a city struggling to cope with the unrest that is stirred up when the police shoot an unarmed man. The show was created by Barbie Kligman and Aaron Kaplan, with Kligman and her husband Billy Malone writing the script.

This seems to be a popular theme for US TV drama at the moment, reflecting the number of high-profile incidents in which controversial police shootings have inspired riots and retaliation. Fox, for example, is working on Shots Fired, a drama that explores the aftermath of racially charged shootings in a Tennessee town.

Dynamic Television has taken the rights to Hulu's East Los High
Dynamic Television has taken the rights to Hulu’s East Los High

Also within the ABC family, cable channel Freeform has commissioned a third season of drama series Stitchers. The show hasn’t been a huge hit for Freeform (season two averaged 387,000 per episode) but will provide some stability as Freeform’s top two shows Pretty Little Liars and Switched At Birth move inexorably towards extinction. For those unfamiliar with the show, it focuses on a female hacker who joins a government agency that investigates murders by hacking into the brains of the deceased.

Turning to Europe, UFA Fiction and ZDF began production this week on their new miniseries drama Heaven & Hell – Martin Luther (working title). Marking 500 years since the Reformation, the series tells the story of Martin Luther, the visionary reformer and one of the most important religious figures in history.

Filming commenced in Prague and the surrounding areas and will continue until early December. Executive producers Benjamin Benedict and Joachim Kosack of UFA Fiction said: “The radical perspective on those early days of the Reformation that Heaven & Hell – Martin Luther enables us to portray human inconsistencies, depths and conflicts. This is a story of a group of people alive 500 years ago whose internal convictions led them to forge a new path – one that ultimately changed the world.”

The show is the latest in a line of big-budget coproductions that have tackled pre-20th century European historical subjects. Others include Borgia, Versailles, 1864, Victoria, Maximilian and Marie de Bourgogne, Medici: Masters of Florence and the BBC’s literary adaptations such as Wolf Hall and War & Peace (and the in-development Les Miserables and A Place of Greater Safety) . The new Martin Luther project will be distributed by FremantleMedia International.

Black-ish will air on E4 in the UK
Black-ish will air on E4 in the UK

There has also been a lot of movement in drama acquisition and distribution business this week. Channel 4 in the UK, for example, has acquired the rights to ABC comedy Black-ish for its digital channel E4.

Dynamic Television, meanwhile, has acquired the global rights to Hulu original series East Los High, which tells the story of a group of inner-city high-school students in LA. Dynamic managing partner Daniel March said: “The series is a game-changer that has completely shattered the bar in the genre. This is a high-powered, emotional drama that speaks to the most sought-after youth audience by tackling everyday challenges.”

Also this week, German, UK and French on-demand services have picked up 12-part Norwegian drama Young & Promising from Nevision-owned distributor About Premium Content. The show, which follows a group of aspirational young urban women, will be streamed on ARD/ZDF-owned Funk in Germany, Channel 4’s Walter Presents in the UK and CanalPlay in France.

Laurent Boissel, joint CEO and co-founder at APC, said: “VoD platforms and broadcasters continue to look for quality drama targeted at millennials. With its strong female leads and a tone that resonates with our time, Young & Promising will appeal to this audience.”

Young & Promising has been acquired by German, UK and French on-demand services
Young & Promising has been acquired by German, UK and French on-demand services

Still in the world of streamers, US-based Acorn is partnering the BBC and All3Media International on Close to the Enemy, a Stephen Poliakoff drama set in a bomb-damaged London hotel in the aftermath of the Second World War. The drama, which Poliakoff discussed during last year’s C21 Drama Summit in London, follows an intelligence officer captain whose last task for the Army is to ensure that a captured German scientist starts working for the British RAF on developing the jet engine.

There’s also good news this week for Dori Media Group, which has licensed acclaimed series El Marginal to French pay TV channel Canal+. Nadav Palti, CEO of Dori Media, said: “Canal+ is a premium pay TV channel that provides its subscribers with access to the highest-quality content. The sale of El Marginal is, therefore, a ringing endorsement of the quality of the show.”

The series focuses on the story of Miguel Dimarco, an ex-cop who enters the San Onofre prison under a false identity as a convict. His mission is to infiltrate a gang of prisoners who have organised the kidnapping of a judge’s daughter. Miguel must discover the whereabouts of the girl and set her free. He meets the objective but someone betrays him, leaving him behind bars with no witnesses who know his true identity.

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DQ discusses Syfy’s Van Helsing with its cast and crew

Vampires have a new foe in the shape of Kelly Overton, the star of Syfy drama Van Helsing. DQ chats to the actor as well as showrunner Neil LaBute about fighting the undead.

Showrunner Neil LaBute
Showrunner Neil LaBute

In Bram Stoker’s classic 1897 horror novel Dracula, the vampire Count Dracula’s attempts to spread the curse of the undead are thwarted by a group of people led by Abraham Van Helsing.

Fast forward 119 years to the present day and the heir to the Helsing empire, Vanessa Helsing, is leading a new charge against some particularly blood-thirsty enemies.

Van Helsing, which launches on US cable channel Syfy on September 23, focuses on Vanessa who, five years after falling into a coma, awakens to find the world has been overrun by vampires – and, with a unique blood type that gives her the ability to turn vampires human, she quickly becomes humanity’s last hope of survival.

The genre is familiar territory for actress Kelly Overton, who stars as Vanessa, having previously appeared in HBO vampire series True Blood.

“I was very fascinated by vampires as a child. But I didn’t intentionally seek out a vampire series,” she says. “It’s just a coincidence – the business works like that. I loved the story and the character, and it happened to be set in a post-apocalyptic vampire world.”

In particular, it was the fight sequences and the chance to use her athletic ability that appealed to Overton, who also highlights her character’s journey of self-discovery: “She wakes up from a coma five years in the future and has to learn who she is all over again. And I love that the audience goes on that journey with her. It’s interesting and awesome. She’s also a mum and has got a daughter, like me. That spoke to me. I just thought it was really compelling.

Van Helsing stars Kelly Overton as Vanessa Helsing
Van Helsing stars Kelly Overton as Vanessa Helsing

“Working out and being athletic has always been a part of my life. At high school I was undefeated in high hurdles! Early on in the business when I would get strong female roles and play some tough chicks, they could see I was athletic and it just carried on. A few years ago I did Tekken [the 2009 movie based on the video game franchise] and did all my own stunts. That’s probably the first thing I can think of in my career that was very fighting-based. I was in heaven! It was one of the best experiences I have had in my career and since it’s such a big part of my job, it’s something I always have ready. For this role, I focused on boxing and weight training – bodybuilding and muscle mass. I bulked up.”

While Overton admits she took a lot of inspiration from Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, the central character of the Alien films, Vanessa really started to take shape via collaboration with showrunner Neil LaBute when filming began in Vancouver.

“There were some blueprints in the beginning but it was definitely a character that we formed together and are continuing to form,” the actor explains. “The great thing about Neil, the writers and producers is that it was such a collaborative community. I really feel like we have been creating this character together, even to the point of helping to shape the season and rewriting some stuff.

“I can do my job best when there’s a deep understanding of the character and who she is and what she wants. I love making them as grounded and layered as possible and finding a way to keep consistencies of character traits. How she grows and how she changes is based on the friction we created. I love what we do. The more fun I can have, the better.”

Distributed by Dynamic Television, the series is produced by Nomadic Pictures, which first approached LaBute about showrunning the project after working with him as a director on AMC western Hell on Wheels.

The writer and playwright also has previous experience with vampires, having once adapted Dracula for the stage, and was keen to hear Nomadic’s thoughts about taking Stoker’s legend in a new direction.

Intrigued at the opportunity to create a new brand of female hero, he signed on and started work to bring Vanessa Helsing and the world around her to life.

“Our mandate is not to have just a great lead but to surround her with great people with big stories,” LaBute reveals. “I think we did a good job of it. I feel good about the characters and the show has spent a decent amount of time developing characters rather than creating fodder to kill off.

“We were careful to map out the trajectory in the first year and give everybody purpose and backstories that are worthwhile and also pay off in seasons to come. We had a group of people who were dedicated to creating a lot of story rather than just vampire-of-the-week stuff.”

A key part of the development process was establishing the ‘rules’ of the show and the extent to which Van Helsing would fit into established vampire lore.

“People have preconceived notions about what vampires are, especially if you’re connected to Bram Stoker, so we’ve had to be clear about how we feel about crosses, garlic and mirrors,” LaBute notes. “We had to put a stake in the ground. You have to say, ‘This is where we’re going to be.’ We’re aware of the myths but we’re going in other directions. I’m sure there are things we missed that people will be happy to point out along the way!”

Finding a balance between story and action proved one of the biggest challenges of the first season for LaBute, who also gained his first experience of working in a writers room. But he reveals the plot is relatively contained for half of the episodes as Vanessa and her band of survivors rally together inside a hospital as vampires attack it.

Van Helsing
The series is set in a post-apocalyptic world taken over by vampires

“I hope part of why they brought me in was to create drama between the survivors,” the writer says. “Vampires are only part of the problem, they’re only one of the dangerous things out there. Many people are as dangerous or more dangerous than vampires because of what they are willing to do to survive.

“I think we have created a lot of human drama. You’ve got old-fashioned soapy drama mixed in with life-and-death moments. The Walking Dead was a great template for us. People fall in love, have babies, turn on each other, but every moment could be your last.”

And it’s that human drama that LaBute also hopes will hook viewers that wouldn’t call themselves genre fans and might not ordinarily tune into a weekly drama set in a post-apocalyptic world.

“I’m not a fantasy fan but I love Game of Thrones,” he adds. “I love medieval worlds and that drags me into a genre I don’t normally spend a lot of time in, and I hope people who don’t like vampires might find something else in the show. I want people to ask themselves, ‘How would I thrive or survive if all the things I know have come to an end?’”

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European dramas get backing from buyers

Game of Thrones star Richard Madden in Medici: Masters of Florence
Game of Thrones star Richard Madden in Medici: Masters of Florence

Series like War And Peace, Borgia and Versailles have proved that there is a global market for lavish period dramas originated in Europe. And now Medici: Masters of Florence, featuring Dustin Hoffman, looks set to join this list of successful shows.

Produced by Lux Vide in collaboration with Big Light Productions and Wild Bunch, the show was commissioned by Rai in Italy and is distributed internationally by Wild Bunch TV (except in the US, where WME is handling sales).

This week, Wild Bunch announced a slew of Medici sales to SFR/Altice Group (France, French-speaking Belgium, Luxembourg), Sky (Germany), SBS (Australia), eOne (New Zealand), Sony Pictures Television (Latin America), DBS (Israel), VRT (Belgium), Canal+ (Poland), LRT (Lithuania), RTV (Slovenia), RTVS (Slovakia), Canal+ Overseas (French-speaking Africa), Hulu (Japan), Georgian Public 2 Broadcast and BTV (Bulgaria). This follows a previous sale by Lux Vide to Telefonica/Movistar+ (Spain) and news of a second series commission by Rai.

20 years ago, shows like these tended to end up ponderous and stilted, earning the ‘Europudding’ epithet. The main problem was that too many partners had a say in the creative direction and casting. These days, backers have learned to put greater faith in the hands of the storytellers – and have benefited as a result. In Medici’s case, the series is written by Frank Spotnitz, whose credits include series like The X-Files and The Man in the High Castle, and Nicholas Meyer (Houdini, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan).

Trapped will return for a second season

Medici is set in 15th-century Florence, the city that will host its world premiere on October 14. The eight-part show features Dustin Hoffman as Giovanni de’ Medici, the patriarch of the Medici family who is found dead in mysterious circumstances. His sons, Cosimo (Richard Madden) and Lorenzo (Stuart Martin), are forced to face a range of enemies plotting to oust the Medici from power. Shot entirely in Tuscany, the series depicts the foundations of one of the most profound financial, artistic and scientific awakenings the world has ever known: the Renaissance.

More good news for the European production business this week is the news that RVK Studios, Icelandic national broadcaster RUV and Dynamic Television have announced that Baltasar Kormákur’s Icelandic crime series Trapped has been renewed for a second season. Widely praised by critics, the series attracted a strong audience during its 10-episode run earlier this year. In the UK, the series premiere on BBC4 reached more than 1.2 million viewers. In France, episodes one and two attracted more than 5.7 million viewers on France 2. Audiences averaged more than 500,000 viewers for NRK Norway, while 86% of television-owning homes in Iceland tuned in. The show is also soon to air on ZDF in Germany.

Based on an original idea by Kormákur, Trapped tells the story of a troubled cop investigating a grisly murder when his small Icelandic town is hit by a powerful blizzard, trapping the villagers and most likely the killer in the town. Season two, slated to air in autumn 2018, will follow the same lead characters as they examine an even more complex and challenging murder case. “I am so excited to get to assemble this great group of talent again,” said Kormákur. “This story is far from over. There is a lot more to come, both story-wise and also concerning our lead characters. I guess we all want to get to know them a little bit better.”

Zero Days
Zero Days examines cyber warfare

Klaus Zimmermann, managing partner of Dynamic Television, which distributes the show, said: “Audiences overwhelmingly responded strongly to the thrilling drama and powerful characters and they will find the next season every bit as gripping.” Trapped stars Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, who has also appeared in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and True Detective. It is written by Sigurjón Kjartansson and Clive Bradley.

We’ve written a lot in the last year or two about talent being parachuted into TV drama from film, theatre and publishing. This week, we were reminded of another source of inspiration, following the news that Carnival Films is developing a drama based on Alex Gibney’s feature-length documentary Zero Days, which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February.

Written and directed by Gibney, Zero Days is a documentary thriller about warfare in an arena without rules – the world of cyber war. The film tells the story of Stuxnet, a self-replicating computer malware that the US and Israel unleashed to destroy a key part of an Iranian nuclear facility, and which ultimately spread beyond its intended target. It’s a comprehensive account of how a clandestine mission hatched by two allies with clashing agendas opened forever the Pandora’s Box of cyber warfare.

The drama (whose working title is Stuxnet) will be written by Stephen Schiff, who has been a writer/producer on FX’s acclaimed scripted series The Americans since the second season. Gibney directs and will also produce alongside Marc Shmuger. Nigel Marchant, David O’Donoghue and Gareth Neame are exec producing for Carnival. Participant Media will executive produce while NBC Universal International will distribute the series.

The original She's Gotta Have It
The original She’s Gotta Have It

Film buffs in the audience will note that all three of the above scripted series are directed by talent that is better known for feature-film work. In addition to Gibney and Kormákur, Medici is directed by Sergio Mimica-Gezzani – whose credits include Catch Me If You Can, Saving Private Ryan and Minority Report.

Continuing with this theme, SVoD platform Netflix is partnering with feted director Spike Lee on a drama based on his 1986 film She’s Gotta Have It. The show will follow a Brooklyn-based artist who juggles her time between her friends, job and three lovers. Lee will direct all 10 episodes of the show, which was initially in development with premium pay TV network Showtime.

Looking beyond the usual suspects in the TV drama business, Keshet International (KI) has picked up global distribution rights to Croatian crime drama The Paper and will be promoting it at the Mipcom market in Cannes next month. The 12×50′ show, produced by Croatia’s Drugi Plan, is set in the offices of a newspaper and explores political corruption, power struggles, crime and betrayal.

Roadies has been cancelled by Showtime
Roadies has been cancelled by Showtime

Commenting on the news, KI acquisitions chief Sebastian Burkhardt talked up the growing market for non-English-language drama: “With the current opportunities out there for non-English-speaking series, and our experience with them, we are confident that The Paper will find its audience outside of Croatia.”

Finally, another high-profile US series has bit the dust after just one season. Showtime has announced that Cameron Crowe’s Roadies will not return, following poor ratings (echoing the story with Vinyl at HBO). Crowe said: “Thanks to Showtime and [exec producer] JJ Abrams for the opportunity to make the one and only season of Roadies. My mind is still spinning from the giddy highs of working with this epic cast and crew. Though we could tell a thousand more stories, this run ends with a complete 10-hour tale of music and love. Like a song that slips under your skin, or a lyric that keeps speaking to you, we hope the spell of Roadies lingers. It was a life-changing experience for all of us.”

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Moving mountains to make authentic Icelandic thriller

Klaus Zimmermann and Clive Bradley reveal how they kept crime thriller Trapped grounded in its Icelandic setting while navigating the tricky waters around this intricate international coproduction.

While international coproductions perhaps no longer seem the terrifying prospect they once were, the story of how Trapped came to air may still send shivers down the spines of some television executives.

With nine different broadcast partners on board, making the series – created by renowned director Baltasar Kormákur (Everest) – looks a frightening task from the outside. But executive producer Klaus Zimmermann (Borgia) and writer Clive Bradley (The Killing Gene) say those fears are misplaced, as all partners worked together to create an authentic Icelandic drama that takes the popularity of Nordic Noir into new territory.

The 10-part series opens with snow falling as a ferry from Denmark pulls into a small Icelandic port. With 300 passengers stranded until the storm passes and with the main road into town impassable, a mutilated and dismembered body washes up on the shore – leaving a local police chief convinced a killer has arrived. As word of the death spreads, order descends into chaos as the ferry’s passengers and the town’s residents realise they are all possible suspects and that a killer is trapped among them.

Klaus Zimmermann
Klaus Zimmermann

Produced by RVK Studios and distributed by Dynamic Television, Trapped stars Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Bjarne Henriksen, Ingvar E Sigurðsson, Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir, Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir and Björn Hlynur Haraldsson.

Zimmermann joined the show in 2013 when Kormákur approached him with a project that he couldn’t get off the ground.

“I looked at the material he had worked on and the general idea was already there,” Zimmermann explains. “I took on the development and started to look for a team of writers who could make this more international without breaking the authentic charm of the show.

“Besides the original Icelandic writer, I identified Clive, with whom I’ve worked before. We went to Iceland and worked from scratch by imagining what a show needed to please an international audience. It took us a while to go back to the material, to develop the strong story arcs and strong characters, and after two months we had a new script.”

Several broadcasters had already turned down the project but, undeterred, Zimmermann went back to them with the new script. Germany’s ZDF joined as a coproducer, with plans to air the show in its popular Sunday evening Nordic Noir slot. France Télévisions also came on board, followed by the BBC.

They joined Iceland’s RUV, SVT in Sweden, DR and DRK in Denmark and Finland’s YLE, while The Weinstein Company took rights for the US.

Trapped launched in Iceland in December 2015 to a 90% share of the audience – the biggest in the country’s TV history. Launches followed in Norway in January and France and the UK in February this year, while March saw the show’s arrival in Sweden and Denmark. The German debut is set for this autumn.

“The idea was never to make an international show set in Iceland, like Sky did with Fortitude,” Zimmermann says. “We wanted to do something that specifically made the audience come to Iceland and witness how people live, what the troubles are; to create a really authentic drama.”

Trapped had originally been plotted in Icelandic, the language in which the show is filmed. But an English treatment was written up and sent to Bradley. He then wrote the script in English as part of a mini writers room that also included Zimmermann, French writer Sonia Moyersoen and the original Icelandic writer Sigurjón Kjartansson – who translated the finished scripts back into Icelandic for filming.

Trapped stars
Trapped stars Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (right)

Bradley, who describes joining the project as a “no-brainer,” explains: “Klaus set up a fantastic system where, after I wrote two episodes, we’d meet for a week and plan the next two, and then I’d go away and write them in English.

“Sigurjón was always the one to check what I wrote. In my first draft, I had some people with umbrellas because the weather was terrible – but apparently people in Iceland don’t use umbrellas. There were other interesting points, like if you write that a cop goes home and has a glass of whisky – well, no, he doesn’t in Iceland. Instead, he has a glass of milk, which is a lovely detail. Because it was an Icelandic project in the first place and because of Sigurjón’s involvement, we were always grounded in Icelandic reality.”

Zimmermann adds: “We worked out the stories together and then Clive would execute the script. We would all comment on that and once the English script was finished, it was translated into Icelandic by Sigurjón. There were some changes because of the translation. Icelanders speak with fewer words – there’s one scene where there’s a big drama and lots of dialogue and the actor just makes a ‘hmm’ noise. This is the translation, but it works.”

Despite the number of broadcast partners, Zimmermann says the success of the series’ development came down to the amount of time the four-strong creative team spent in the writers room. “We had eight months to write 10 scripts, in a team of four with Clive doing the writing,” he says. “Every two months we spent the week together and two or three times we went to a small cabin in Iceland. In the evening we watched TV shows and in the daytime we plotted terrible things happening in Iceland.

“This atmosphere and working structure is part of how this project was generated. The show has a very nice pace. It starts slow but it picks up more and more speed, and in every second episode there is something happening you wouldn’t have imagined – someone jumping out of a helicopter or an avalanche coming down on the village, for example. Hopefully the audience will wonder what will happen to the town and the hero in the next episode because they’ll be thinking it can’t possibly be more terrible than what has already happened.

“It was quite an unusual development process but it’s an encouraging example of how television works today where you have a very original story, setting and a solid first script, with everything you expect for a primetime drama. In Iceland the production process is terribly complicated but the price is quite competitive. Part of the equation was that we weren’t asking broadcasters for a fortune. We were asking for a reasonable proportion of the risk to be taken by several parties at the same time, and that’s how the budget slowly came together.”

The series focuses on a murder in a town cut off from the outside world by a storm
The series focuses on a murder in a town cut off from the outside world by a storm

Costing more than double the average production in the country, Trapped wasn’t cheap by Icelandic standards but Zimmermann says the results justify the outlay: “A normal Icelandic production can be produced for as little as €300,000 (US$326,200) an hour, and this is more than €750,000 – but the standard of the production is comparable to any high-end Scandinavian drama.

“The reason for that is the production company behind this is owned by Baltasar, who is mainly a feature film director and only works to the highest quality standards available. So the equipment was top, there was enough time to produce and some of the actors have international careers. The lead actor, Ólafur, is working with Steven Spielberg on The BFG so it’s the crème de la crème of Iceland on screen.”

Key to getting the broadcasters on board was convincing them Trapped would be unlike anything they had seen before, and the combination of Kormákur’s back catalogue, the Icelandic setting and Zimmermann’s experience in international drama completed the package.

“They were not commissioning broadcasters. Their level of commitment was below the commission, with less control, but the process was still very collaborative,” says Zimmermann, revealing how the broadcasters fell into the production process together.

“The director does his cut, I give my input. You send it to a few of the broadcasters and you get a feel for who wants to be more involved. A channel like BBC4 expects something authentic. It doesn’t have the infrastructure to be hands-on, so it relies on the mechanic to work.

“ZDF, however, was very hands on. The slot where it wanted to air Trapped is very competitive. We also had a lot of discussions with France Télévisions, which has similar needs for its audience. It came to rough-cut screenings, so that was the heart of the process in the end.

“We had some difficult moments, especially when things became very Icelandic. We had a comment on the first rough cut where someone said there was too much snow. The weather starts to get very bad after the first 10 minutes because the village is trapped by an ice storm, so there’s really terrible weather in the rest of the episode.

“The first reaction was, ‘We can’t have all this snow,’ but it looks fantastic with the effects, sound and music. We had to go through that process of saying this is a winter show, an Icelandic show.”

For Bradley, Trapped marked his first venture into a writers room, and he says he would happily repeat the process – perhaps during season two, which is under discussion. “The four of us would be in the writers room for several days. In the UK, you don’t do that. More and more projects are starting to have a version of the American writers room but it’s still quite rare. It was the first time I’d done anything like that. Rather than spend several hours with producers and script editors, spending days thrashing out the details was one of many things about the experience that I want to repeat.

“It’s an incredibly productive way of proceeding with developing a story. I’d never done 10 hours before and it’s amazing having that length of time. Obviously you have to find a story to fill it but to then have characters you can develop compared with an hour-and-a-half running time, it’s a great experience.”

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International Drama Summit: Round-up

The international drama community gathered at the BFI on London’s South Bank for three days of screenings, panel sessions, case studies and awards. Michael Pickard looks back on C21 Media’s International Drama Summit, part of Content London.

On the south bank of the River Thames, hundreds of producers, writers and broadcasters from around the world gathered in London for C21 Media’s International Drama Summit this week.

Held at the British Film Institute, the event took in three days of screenings, panel sessions and interviews covering the hottest talking points in the business – from budgets and coproductions to what commissioners are looking for to fill their schedules.

Audiences took in the first images of new Icelandic drama Trapped, written by Clive Bradley and produced by Dynamic Television. Producer Klaus Zimmermann discussed the challenges of working with nine commissioning broadcasters, among them SVT, DR1, DRK, France Télévisions and BBC4.

Figures from all areas of the drama industry descended on London for C21's International Drama Summit
Figures from all areas of the drama industry descended on London for C21’s International Drama Summit

Bradley also spoke about his positive experience working in a US-style writers room for the first time. “It’s always going to be true that if you have four rather than one brain that you will create more,” he said. “The turnaround was always going to be very quick because you’ve got at least eight months to do 10 episodes.”

There was also a packed house for a first glimpse at ITV’s forthcoming period drama Victoria, starring former Doctor Who companion Jenna Coleman. “Jenna was born to be queen,” said Damien Timmer, from producer Mammoth Screen.

Writer Daisy Goodwin added: “I’ve tried to tell the story of a teenager growing up with a crown. She’s not the queen you expect. It’s drama but everything that happens is true.”

Among the drama case studies, the creative teams from shows including Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, The Collection, Dickensian, Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, Capital and Jekyll & Hyde took to the stage to reveal secrets from behind the scenes.

Agatha Christie Ltd CEO Hilary Strong said she always envisioned And Then There Were None to be a coproduction, with the three-parter due to air on BBC1 in the UK and Lifetime in the US.

“Working with Joel [Denton, A+E Networks ] and A+E has been a real revelation. This is a BBC show, it’s inherently British, but A+E didn’t demand we put any US stars in as per the old coproduction thing. That is over. Instead, we knew it needed a cast that resonated [in the US] so there was a dialogue.”

DQ editor Michael Pickard (far left) discusses Jekyll and Hyde with the team behind the show
DQ editor Michael Pickard (far left) discusses ITV’s Jekyll and Hyde with the team behind the show

Elsewhere, executives discussed spiralling budgets, creating an increasing need to piece together funding through multiple streams – whether via licence fees, private funding, distribution financing or pre-sales.

And while there was plenty of talk about the alleged saturation of the TV drama market, it was clear that many executives simply believe that while there might be too many shows, there aren’t enough great shows.

Morgan Wandell (pictured top), head of drama series for Amazon Studios, said as much during his keynote session when he warned producers against making run-of-the-mill, “industrial grade” procedurals.

He told delegates that Amazon Studios is aiming to make shows that are a “step above” what is already on offer, such as the SVoD platform’s recently launched The Man in the High Castle.

“If you’re making industrial-grade procedurals then good luck, but you do run the risk of being washed out,” he said, adding that some producers and writers “have built up specific muscles in TV. We’ve stripped away narrative tropes they relied on.”

Meanwhile, UK commissioners noted the changing television landscape as genre tastes and viewing habits continue to evolve.

BBC drama commissioner Polly Hill claimed TV audiences are now more open than ever to “complex, tricky” plots as she unveiled a new series from Luther creator Neil Cross set in a pre-apocalyptic London.

Sky Anne Mensah
Sky head of drama Anne Mensah took to the stage alongside commissioning editor Cameron Roach

Hard Sun, which will air in 2017 and is produced by Euston Films, follows detectives Elaine Renko and Robert Hicks, partners and enemies, who seek to protect their loved ones and enforce the law in a world slipping closer to certain destruction.

Hill told the Drama Summit that the success of the BBC’s recent drama slate, including Sherlock and Happy Valley, was evidence that “mainstream is really moving and big audiences will watch really complex, tricky subjects.”

Sky head of drama Anne Mensah and drama commissioning editor Cameron Roach described the differences between the networks they look after. Watching Sky Atlantic was compared to buying a ticket for a blockbuster film, while Sky Arts was likened to an art house cinema – though not for niche storytelling.

The pair said story was key across the board, however, adding that the pay TV broadcaster’s development team is now commissioning year-round for all three networks, including Sky1, and that channel boundaries remain fluid depending on the project.

ITV director of drama Steve November was more specific when describing his channel’s needs for the next two years. With shows such as Victoria and Jericho coming up in 2016, the broadcaster is well placed to retain viewers following the end of long-running hit Downton Abbey, which concludes with a Christmas special later this month.

And while ITV remains keen on period dramas – with Dark Angel and Doctor Thorne also coming up next year – November said he was looking for a range of new contemporary dramas to fill the 21.00 slot.

ITV drama director Steve November
ITV drama director Steve November

“I have got to be honest, I watched [the BBC’s] Dr Foster with a degree of envy and I wish we had that show,” he said. “Big romantic thrillers and a family relationship drama are real priorities for us.”

Channel 4 drama team Piers Wenger and Beth Willis also talked about the challenge of building a year-round drama slate, and how they approach traditional genres such as crime, period and sci-fi in a fresh way (see No Offence, Indian Summers and Humans respectively).

Deputy head of drama Willis said: “If it could be on another channel, we shouldn’t be doing it. We’re always looking for shows with an edge.”

Wenger, C4’s head of drama, revealed there are a variety of funding models in play at the broadcaster, such as its international coproduction strategy that saw Humans produced with US cable channel AMC.

As the conference drew to a close, the challenges of the future came into view – keeping viewers tuning into linear broadcasts, judging success in ways other than overnight ratings, piecing together financing in a world where there are no longer any set models for production and finding ways to tell new stories in an increasingly competitive market.

There will never be a formula for creating a hit series, but the ambition to find the next big hit is continuing to drive the business forward in new and innovative ways, ensuring the appetite for television drama will remain undiminished for some time to come.

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