Tag Archives: Filip Lenaerts

VRT and the chocolate factory

Belgian producer De Mensen partnered with a unique theatre company to make heart-warming drama Tytgat Chocolat (Team Chocolate). Co-writer/director Filip Lenaerts and producer Pieter Van Huyck recall the origins of the series, which is an example of how television drama can break down disability barriers for actors.

Flemmish drama Tytgat Chocolat (Team Chocolate) follows one man’s journey across Europe to be reunited with the love of his life. But the inspiring story behind this heart-warming romantic comedy goes far beyond the plot, thanks to a unique partnership that brought together the cast and crew for an adventure both on and off screen.

The show centres on Jasper Vloemans, who works at chocolate manufacturer Tytgat Chocolate and falls in love with Tina, a woman from Kosovo. When she is suddenly deported back to her home country, Jasper and his friends set out off a road trip to find her.

But what distinguishes Team Chocolate from other series is that Jasper, played by Jelle Palmaerts, is a young man with Down’s syndrome, and the chocolate factory employs people with mental health issues and learning difficulties.

Filip Lenaerts (left) and Marc Bryssinck on set

Produced by De Mensen for Belgian public broadcaster VRT, the series was born from a partnership between De Mensen and Theater Stap, a Flanders-based theatre company for people with learning difficulties. Actors from the company play all the lead roles in the show.

The drama was first pitched in 2010, when documentary maker Filip Lenaerts began shooting a film at Theater Stap. He then partnered with the theatre’s creative director, Marc Bryssinck, to bring the acting troupe to the screen.

A short film called Lord of the Flies was produced, before Lenaerts and Bryssinck approached De Mensen with the idea for a scripted series. The duo were already in talks with VRT, so the development process was well underway by the time De Mensen came on board.

Producer Pieter Van Huyck recalls: “We do all kinds of genres, from very niche, bizarre comedy to broad romantic stuff and whodunnits. But we always try to find a unique angle or a unique reason to do the project. In this case, the reason was very obvious.

Team Chocolate was made with Theater Stap, which works with actors with learning difficulties

“To do something with these actors and believe in their talent and make a fully fledged scripted show – not to approach it as a social project but to make a high-quality scripted show – was a good story. When we started to work with these actors, immediately you could see their talents.”

Van Huyck notes that the cast sometimes had difficulty memorising a lot of text or needed help to understand a particular scene, but says they were all extremely talented when it came to showing a wide range of emotions.

“Their acting style is very true and that was something that touched us, so we knew something would be possible,” he continues. “With Marc and Filip, from the start it was very logical for them to make a story about what the actors find important in real life, which is to be independent, to find true love, to make their own decisions and to have relationships. This is the true subject and also what is going on in the lives of these people. That’s why they really understood the script.”

That a Belgian drama would be set in a chocolate factory seemed like a no-brainer to co-writer and co-director Lenaerts. “We had almost no doubt about the chocolate factory,” he says. “We started to discuss it and it’s a bittersweet story so it’s like chocolate, and it’s a Belgian product. We thought it’s a nice thing and, more specifically, we have Belgian truffles in the show that a lot of people know from their childhood. It’s a very Flemish thing.”

Pieter Van Huyck speaking at the show’s premiere

Lenaerts describes writing the series with Bryssinck as a very collaborative affair. Indeed, they sat together every day to pen the scripts, starting in February 2014 and working for about 12 months.

“Since Mark and I are unexperienced drama writers, it took a long time because we had to learn how it worked technically,” says Lenaerts, who filmed Belgian science series De Herontdekking van de Wereld. “So we didn’t write it with the production in mind. We were not thinking about whether something would be too difficult or too expensive. We just wrote what we liked, which made it quite a difficult shoot because we had lots of different and complex scenes and different actors. So it was quite hard work for us for a few months.”

Pre-production began in March 2015 and Lenaerts and Bryssinck were separated for a few months. “Mark was working with the actors and rehearsing and I was finishing the scripts, the location-hunting and the casting,” Lenaerts says. “Then in May 2015, the circus started. We went on the road until mid-September.”

Rehearsals began with rough versions of the script, which was then polished several times to incorporate the actors’ own improvisations.

“This process was repeated several times and there were two advantages,” Van Huyck says. “You recreate a true and feasible story because part of it is coming out of these people’s hearts, minds and lives. Secondly, it enables you to check which scenes are difficult to play and should be adapted. So that prepared us for the shoot, and during shooting the tempo was a little bit slower. We shot fewer scenes per day, but not too [few], because we wanted to treat them as real actors. We also had a budget, which was limited of course, but we had extra people on set to take care of the actors, to assist them and comfort them. Marc, who is very experienced in working with these guys, was around all the time.”

The plot centres on a man’s search for the love of his life

The seven-part series, which debuted on VRT-owned Één in September, was shot entirely on location. “We don’t have the budget to construct very good-looking, expensive studio sets, except for series that are commissioned directly for more than one season, because [with those] we can spread the cost,” Van Huyck explains. “So for a one-off like Team Chocolate, we just didn’t have the budget. We tried to find the right locations and everything was shot in Belgium.”

Lenaerts admis that working on the series felt like he was back in film school, as he had to dispense with his documentary background. But he says preparation was key to staying afloat – adding that, in any case, drama and documentaries aren’t too dissimilar. “You have to tell a story so they’re not that different in essence,” he continues. “Being a director on this huge film set, I just tried to react very intuitively. When I got hundreds of questions, I really tried to give quick answers. I was also surrounded by experienced people. I learned a lot.

“In Team Chocolate, on a Flemish level, almost all the most famous actors are in the series, even for small parts. Often Theater Stap had worked with them before on a theatre stage, so when they heard those guys were making a drama series for television, they were very enthusiastic to join. So the Theater Stap guys were surrounded by great actors and were pushed a little bit. The Theater Stap actors were also challenging our other actors because they were so powerful sometimes. I was really proud of how they did it.”

Team Chocolate was screened at C21 Media’s Content London in 2016 and was also part of the line-up at Series Mania earlier this year. Wild Bunch is handling international sales of the series, which Van Huyck surmises as a “touching show that is feasible for everybody to watch.”

Wild Bunch is the international distributor of Team Chocolate

He continues: “This is really for a broad audience, to watch with the whole family – the parents, the kids, the grandparents, even the pets! This is not edgy stuff, it has nothing to do with pay TV stuff, but I still think a lot of people can like this show. When you start watching this show, you need a few minutes to see these actors but very quickly you forget they’re different and you just see characters, characters you really believe in. That’s something to be proud of.”

The producer also believes the series should encourage others to work with actors who may have disabilities, in whatever form.

“We hope it encourages other people in other countries to try to create their own show with actors who are different,” he adds. “We really think it’s a beautiful way to tell their story without patronising them or approaching something as a social project. They should be treated as real actors and, if you give them that opportunity, their performance is really amazing.”

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Mipcom showcases global writing talent

Malin Lagerlof
Malin Lagerlof

Mipcom, which takes place in Cannes between October 17 and 20, is not just a great platform for international drama – it’s also a useful showcase for writers from around the world.

At a time when the key players in the scripted TV business are increasingly willing to employ writers from beyond their home territory, it’s worth exploring the people behind the market’s headline dramas.

French distributor Wild Bunch TV, for example, will be in Cannes with three dramas including Israeli production Mama’s Angel. A 10-episode psychological drama that explores the dark underbelly of life in a wealthy Tel Aviv suburb after a child is murdered, it was screened in competition at Series Mania 2016 and was created by rising star Keren Weissman.

Called Malach Shel Ima in Hebrew, the show was produced by Black Sheep Productions and aired on Yes TV. Weissman’s first TV drama series, it has scored a decent 8.2 rating on IMDb. Speaking at Series Mania, Weissman said the show took four years to write and places a strong emphasis on emotive themes such as motherhood.

Also on the Wild Bunch slate a road trip-cum-love story Tytgat Chocolate, about a man and his mentally challenged co-workers at a chocolate factory. The seven-part Flemish series was written and directed by Marc Bryssinck and Filip Lenaerts and produced by deMENSEN for VRT. Of the two writers, Lenaerts has the longer track record in TV, having created 2011 documentary The Colony (about life in an isolated prison). Interestingly, Bryssinck is artistic director at Theatre Stap, a professional theatre company that works with people who have mental disabilities. Clearly this experience will have helped inform the VRT show.

Jesse McKeown
Jesse McKeown

Red Arrow International’s slate features a diverse range of drama titles including Farang, a Nordic drama made by Warner Bros for C More and TV4 in Sweden. This one tells the story of a former criminal eking out a shabby existence in Thailand having testified against some old friends in his home country, Sweden. An eight-part series starring Ola Rapace, this one is written by Malin Lagerlof, Veronica Zacco, Anders Sparring and Niklas Rockstrom.

Lagerlof is a well-established writer whose recent credits include SVT miniseries Bibliotekstjuven and Wallander – Saknaden, a 2013 production from Yellow Bird. Prior to her success in TV, she made a name for herself in theatre and film production. Zacco is a more recent addition to the industry but has several episodes of Thicker than Water under her belt. Rockstrom, who also worked on Thicker than Water, is now involved with a new SVT project called Before We Die. Sparring’s most recent major credit, meanwhile, was the kids animation series Rita & Krokodille.

Red Arrow is also at the market with The Romeo Section: Assassins, a Vancouver-set espionage thriller that aired on CBC. The blurb says: “To his university, Professor Wolfgang McGee is a gifted academic. To his country, he is the spymaster behind the Romeo Section, a secret ring of intelligence operatives that infiltrate some of the world’s deadliest criminal networks.”

Chris Haddock
Chris Haddock

This one is written by a trio that includes Jesse McKeown, Chris Haddock and Stephen E. Miller. McKeown is a well-established writer whose recent credits include 19-2, Rogue, Republic of Doyle and Da Vinci’s City Hall. Larger-than-life figure Haddock was the creator and showrunner of the latter show and also showruns the new title being marketed by Red Arrow. In fact, he has previously been profiled by DQ – click here to check it out. Interestingly, Miller is better known as an actor (with a long string of credits). This is his first outing as a writer, except for a single episode of Da Vinci’s Inquest, a precursor to Da Vinci’s City Hall that was also created and written by Haddock.

StudioCanal’s big push at the market is Midnight Sun, a Canal+/SVT coproduction. Created by Måns Mårlind and Bjorn Stein, StudioCanal calls it “a high-concept thriller set in a small mining community in remote northern Sweden where a series of brutal murders conceal a secret conspiracy.” Due to air later this year, the series received the Audience Award at SeriesMania in April.

Mårlind and Stein, of course, are best known for crime series Bron, which has aired in 160 countries and has been remade in the US as The Bridge and the UK  as The Tunnel. They started working together at Stockholm-based production company Camp David where they directed commercials for major brands including Nike, UNICEF, Toyota, Reebok, Scandinavian Airlines, and IKEA. After this they began alternating between commercials and feature films, helming Underworld: Awakening, starring Kate Beckinsale. In more recent times their focus has been on high-end TV drama.

Bjorn Stein (left) and Måns Marlind
Bjorn Stein (left) and Måns Marlind

Sticking with the Scandinavians, StudioCanal will also present Below the Surface, a crime thriller for Denmark’s Kanal 5 from SAM Productions. In this story, 15 people on a subway train beneath Copenhagen are taken hostage by three armed men. A terror taskforce is dispatched to rescue them and a reporter acts as go-between with the police as the captors bait the press with information about each hostage’s past.

Kasper Barfoed is creator, head writer and concept director of the show. Until now, Barfoed had been best known as a director, having previously been a child actor. His previous directorial credits include Dicte and Those Who Kill. His only previous writing credit is 2015 movie Sommeren ’92, set against the Danish football team’s successful campaign in the 1992 European Championships.

From the UK, StudioCanal has Crazyhead, a new comedy-horror series from Bafta winner Howard Overman (Misfits). The six-part series is produced by Urban Myth Films for Channel 4 in association with Netflix. It follows “Amy and Raquel as they navigate their way through the choppy waters of their early 20s while kicking the ass of some seriously gnarly demons.”

Sebastian Ortega

RAI Com, the sales arm of Italian pubcaster RAI, is also heading to Cannes with a strong slate of dramas. One key title is crime series Non Uccidere (Close Murders), which is entering its second season. The story focuses on a female crime fighter, Valeria Ferro of the Turin Homicide Squad, and her battle against domestic and community-based violence. It was directed by Giuseppe Gagliardi and created by Claudio Corbucci, whose previous TV series credits include La Squadra. For the last few years, he has been more focused on movies and TV movies.

Dori Media Group, meanwhile, has high hopes for crime drama El Marginal, a 2016 Grand Prix winner at Séries Mania. El Marginal is a coproduction from Underground Producciones and TV Publica Argentina and was created by Sebastian Ortega.

It tells the story of Miguel Dimarco, “an ex-cop who enters prison under a false identity as a convict. His mission is to infiltrate a gang of prisoners who have kidnapped the daughter of a prominent judge. Miguel must discover the whereabouts of the girl and help set her free. He meets the objective but someone betrays him, leaving him behind bars with no witnesses who know his true identity.”

Ortega is a well-established writer/producer on the Argentinian scene and has been closely associated with commercial channel Telefe since 2008 (though this title is for TPA, not Telefe). Big hits during his career have included Lalola, Los Exitosos Pells and Graduates. Ortega’s shows generally score well with international buyers, so El Marginal is also likely to attract a lot of attention.

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