Tag Archives: France Télévisions

Democracy in action

DQ heads to Brussels, home of the EU, to watch filming of Parlement (Parliament), a drama about youth, commitment and making a difference in a post-Brexit world.

It’s a typically sunny but freezing winter day in the administrative quarter of Brussels when an unusually restless crowd loaded with waffles and filming equipment lands on the seventh floor of the building that houses the European Economic and Social Committee.

The penultimate day of shooting comedy-drama Parlement (Parliament) for France Télévisions’ digital platform France.tv has just kicked off, this time a few blocks away from the European Parliament’s main building.

“Shooting a series inside the European Parliament is not really common. We had some convincing to do,” says Cinétévé producer Thomas Saignes. “We needed to persuade them that the team behind it was serious, that the talent was right and that the intention was also right. It was a long process but we were lucky that the secretary general agreed to meet with us and open the door.”

Balanced between office comedy and psychodrama, the 10-part series follows Samy – a young, overconfident parliamentary assistant who is clueless and prejudiced – arriving at his new job a few days after the Brexit referendum in 2016. As they get ready to film, cast and crew are startled to discover a crazy coincidence: the actual agenda of the day at the European Parliament features a citizens’ initiative addressing the same under-represented topic the fictional lead character of the series fights against – the cruel practice of finning (removing the fin from a shark and discarding the rest of the animal back into the ocean).

On his first day, Samy accidentally raises his hand and must take up a report about finning, but he hasn’t got a clue about the subject or how he can get the report through the system. “To be clear, in the beginning he doesn’t even give a dime, but he is taken into the machinery of the bureaucracy and over the course of the series, it will become his personal fight as he puts everything at stake – his personal interests, his dignity, his time, his love life – to pass this report,” Saignes explains.

Xavier Lacaille (left) as Samy alongside Lucas Englander as Torsten

Leading actor and French comedian Xavier Lacaille admits his background studying law helped him to better relate to this role, even though the only costume he has to wear is Samy’s work suit. He demonstrates how he walks without touching his heels on the floor to bring out the clumsiness of the character and to appear taller than he is.

Having lived in the US for several years, Lacaille also needed to find his French accent again when speaking English. “It’s not a huge thing, but for the first few days of shooting it was tricky because you need to keep the same accent throughout,” he says.

The idea for Parlement came from two people who both have strong personal connections to the subject matter – producer Fabienne Servan Schreiber, CEO of Cinétévé, whose husband served as an MEP, and writer Noé Debré, who was born and raised across the street from the EU headquarters in Strasbourg. They shared the same passion for the institution and, having had insider experience of it, had long thought the European Parliament was an interesting arena for fiction, although broadcasters appeared hard to persuade.

“They found it almost repulsive, because they thought it was boring as a subject and some of them perhaps had the fear that it would be Euro-bashing because it is political satire,” Saignes recalls.

After discussions about the show with a French pay TV service and American platforms were dropped, his own intuition pointed towards a European coproduction, with France.tv airing the series alongside Belgium’s BeTV and Germany’s WDR. It will debut on France.tv this Thursday.

“I knew we had to make it international to the core, with a European writers room and a European cast,” he continues. “But it was still difficult to convince broadcasters, until one lucky occasion. France Télévisions was launching its streaming platform so they needed an original project that would be spoken about. Then we started a long process of gathering coproducers and convincing different channels.”

Director of photography Lucie Baudinand

All3Media’s 7Stories helped with allocating a UK co-writer, Daran Johnson, while Studio Hamburg’s CineCentrum (Germany) and Artemis (Belgium) joined as coproducers. Further funding was granted by Creative Europe’s Media fund, France’s CNC and Germany’s MFG, with France TV Distribution handling international sales. With the help of agents from five countries, the production cast actors of seven nationalities, with scripts including four languages.

Co-written by Debré, Johnson, Pierre Dorac and Maxime Calligaro, the scripts shift between a didactic, explicatory and funny take on European politics. Precision was vital – all terms and procedures had to be absolutely correct, as they would for an ER medical drama. Consultants double- and triple-checked the accuracy of all legal procedural technicalities involved.

Armando Iannucci’s political satires Veep and The Thick of It served as a source of inspiration but Saignes points out that Parlement’s approach doesn’t ape Iannucci’s razor-sharp style. “We didn’t want to make an advert for the European Union with Parlement, but we didn’t want to do any Euro-bashing either. You need to love what you laugh at – the craziness of the institution, of the bureaucracy – to be able to make fun of it in a positive way.

“Essentially, ours is a series about youth, commitment and making a difference. It is to say, don’t become frustrated by political action, by collective action, by compromise, by discussion, by convincing; there is one arena where you can make a difference, and it’s here in Brussels.”

In his adventures, Samy is joined by Rose (Liz Kingsman), a British assistant and Brexiteer just about to realise the major life decisions she needs to make post-Brexit. “Tragedy is when the heroes are aware of the drama, and comedy is when they are not – and Samy and Rose don’t have the slightest idea of the internal bureaucracy that they will be caught in,” says Jérémie Sein, who directs with Émilie Noblet. “For us, reading a script is very technical and it’s very rare to be reading and laughing at the same time. Putting a rookie in the middle of a new environment is a cliché, but our writers did it without losing the funniness or the characters.”

L-R: Actors Lacaille and Liz Kingsman with co-director Émilie Noblet

“When we read Parlement, the first reference that comes to mind is The Office, but we chose a handling that is a bit more sophisticated. We are not at all in a pseudo-documentary – this is actual fiction. We tried to edit it and visually imagine it sophisticatedly,” Noblet explains. “We gave ourselves freedom to film the scenes, so we have a variety of styles. The only thing that we kept is the frequent use of short focus, which works really well with comedy.”

For Sein, German and Belgian filming styles are more akin to those in Hollywood so some French naturalism was added. “We didn’t try to make everyone happy. We went towards what we knew best, which is naturalist comedy à la Français, with cold humour, and we inserted more colour and design,” he says, stressing that the union of actors from different nationalities with different approaches to acting made it crucial to cast the right talent for the two leading roles.

“Although Liz is English and Xavier is French, they had the same energy and everybody could find their style and gravitate around those two very grounded comedians. We found two good planets for the other stars to revolve around in an interesting manner – in a way, that resembles the EU flag a bit,” he laughs.

“Rose’s British sense of humour, which is very confronting to Samy, was the best cocktail ever. In terms of acting, they were both getting every shot perfect from the first take and were a pleasure to work with,” agrees Noblet.

In a corridor on the set, German star Christiane Paul says her experience of working with actors from diverse backgrounds and young directors on a low-budget series was as intriguing as the script and she found herself laughing out loud while reading it on a train, triggering curious glances from other commuters.

L-R: Parlement co-director Jérémie Sein with actors Philippe Duquesne and William Nadylam

“I loved the wit of it and the telling of a story about the European Parliament. I believe it was time for this to happen,” says the Emmy-winning actor, who plays Ingeborg, a manipulative German political advisor described as a nightmare.

Paul’s challenge was speaking in sophisticated French – a language she barely knows. “I built my character on the French language in a way – I learned my lines phonetically and I just try to remember them. Of course, I understand what I am saying and I am really aware of what the scenes are about,” she says, describing how a French piano teacher living nearby helped her with her lines.

Her scene is up next with Lacaille and Austrian-born Lucas Englander. The latter plays Torsten, Ingeborg’s closest partner and a dark passive-aggressive character very much outside of Englander’s real-life temperament.

“It is interesting to shift into Torsten every day because my personality is much quieter than his. To fall into the shoes of someone who is so loud is a stretch. He is very sarcastic the entire time, even with people he doesn’t know well, and therefore he is misunderstood,” he says of his character.

As the crew wraps for the day, Saignes is optimistic the show will travel well, which could be the passport to more seasons – each deployed in, or dealing with, different EU zones and territories. Certain there is plenty of material for several seasons, he suggests season two could still have a Brexit component, and possibly even a quirky romantic aspect through a fling between Samy and Rose while she has to leave Brussels for the UK.

“People often say that comedy doesn’t travel well, because what is funny for the Danes, for example, is not funny for the Spaniards,” he says. “But here we felt that we had one arena that was the home of all those people and struck a chord – where you can make fun of all those people together and find a way for comedy to work well for everyone.”

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Head case

French crime drama Kepler(s) tackles themes of mental health and the Calais migrant crisis in the story of a police officer secretly struggling with multiple personality disorder who is sent to investigate the murder of a student in the port town. DQ meets the writers and producers.

There aren’t many school projects that get developed into a six-part series, are commissioned by a national broadcaster and then screened at an international television festival. Yet that’s the journey travelled by Kepler(s), the first television series from French writing partners Jean-Yves Arnaud and Yoann Legave.

In their previous lives, Legave was a journalist while Arnaud worked for NGOs. But five years ago, having moved into making short films and writing, respectively, they applied to go back to their studies and subsequently began a project to create a television series.

Kepler(s) follows the discovery of a student’s body in a migrant camp

That series was Kepler(s) and when they were introduced to EVS Productions’ Caroline Solanillas and Laurent Cevccaldi, they were given the chance to write a pilot.

“It’s crazy,” admits Legave, “but the project is crazy and it’s quite complicated, with multiple personalities and the location of the show in Calais, which is really politically hardcore at the moment.”

Solanillas says she thought the script was well written and, in particular, she was drawn to the contemporary themes that laid the foundations for a crime drama. “We like projects that focus on real topics of our world and Calais is one of these topics,” she says. “No one in France talks about it so we are the first and only series that is about migrants and refugees. Calais is a real place with all these people. It’s also a very cinematographic place.”

The titular Kepler, played by Marc Lavoine, is a cop who suffers from multiple personalities. Posted in Calais, he tries to put his life back together with his wife and daughter. But when the body of a young student is found in a migrant camp, Kepler is paired up with a young local cop named Alice, who is both his guide and a witness to his downfall.

Kepler’s different personalities are dramatised inside a dark room

During the series, which is commissioned by France 2 and distributed by France Télévisions, Kepler will uncover some truths about how refugees are exploited by a city that doesn’t want them but uses them anyway. The story also confronts themes of madness as Kepler attempts to control the ‘passengers’ in his head.

“We loved the idea that he was treating them like we treat the refugees – we need them but we imprison them,” Legave explains. “With what’s going on politically there, we think it goes well with this case.”

Kepler has three additional personalities that all clamour for control. The inspiration for the character came from the real-life case of Billy Milligan, a US citizen who was acquitted of several charges of rape after claiming insanity due to multiple personality disorder.

On screen, Kepler’s different personalities are dramatised inside a dark room, where each personality is personified by a different actor. “When a passenger takes control of the body, there’s a big black room with just light on in it and whoever is under the light has control of the body,” Legave explains. “We used that to write the show and make people understand what was going on in his head.

Marc Lavoine plays a cop who suffers from multiple personality disorder

“When it’s in his head, the different personalities are played by different actors and then Martin, who plays Kepler, found really subtle ways to indicate to the viewers which one he was when the character is out in the real world.”

It is through the eyes of Alice, Kepler’s new partner, played by Sofia Essaïdi, that viewers discover and come to terms with his condition. She’s not the only one with suspicions about Kepler’s behaviour of his reasons for being in Calais, however.

“What we found interesting about Alice is she’s a young cop, she moves to Calais and it’s a really hard situation for her,” says Legave. “We talked to cops there, NGOs, refugees and tried to have a feeling for every situation. At the beginning, she’s exhausted with the situation, with her work and as the show progresses, she will discover his madness.”

Arnaud adds: “All the cops in Calais wonder what he has done to be in Calais. It’s not a promotion, so they keep wondering what he’s done. They discover an operation has gone wrong in Paris, but they don’t know exactly what’s happened and why he’s in Calais.”

Writing together, Arnaud and Legave would individually describe how they each saw a scene before they began to write the dialogue, splitting episodes between them and then coming back to share and discuss their work together. The first two episodes were developed with broadcaster France 2 over 10 months before the show was greenlit. The next four scripts were written in just four months before shooting took place in Dunkirk and Calais between September and December 2017.

Solanillas believes French broadcasters are becoming more ambitious with drama

“The difficult part was Calais and the political situation there,” Legave says of writing the series. “When we started writing the show, the Jungle [migrant camp] was at the centre of the show, but during the writing, the police broke it up. So we had to think about what we were doing and how to represent the city. Were we ignoring the fact they dismantled it or were we writing it like it is and making a bet that it will not change that much? Shooting there is complicated, too, because there are a lot of cops.”

“Everything in this show is complicated because there are a lot of scenes, a lot of action, a lot of different places and many characters,” admits Solanillas. “For us, it was the most ambitious show we have ever done. Everything was quite difficult.”

Solanillas says French broadcasters are becoming more ambitious, and the fact France 2 boarded Kepler(s) is proof the network is stepping out of its comfort zone.

Arnaud agrees that the show deals with subjects that aren’t a natural fit for the channel. “It’s one of the first times they’re doing this, especially taking place in Calais, which isn’t the sexiest place on Earth for a French broadcaster,” he adds. “They made the difference; the pilot script was just great. They read it and said they had to do it.”

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Fashion show

The cast of Amazon’s latest release, The Collection, open the doors to the fashion house drama.

Actors signing on to appear in a period drama can usually expect to be transported into another world by the costumes they have to wear. But that claim has never been more valid than it is for The Collection, a stylish drama set in a haute couture fashion house in 1940s Paris.

The series stars Richard Coyle, Tom Riley and Mamie Gummer in the story of an illustrious fashion house emerging from the dark days of the Occupation. Brothers Paul and Claude, played by Coyle and Riley respectively, are at the heart of the family saga, which threatens to expose the grit behind the glamour of the business they, their family and employees all work in.

Frances de la Tour, Alix Poisson, Jenna Thiam and Irène Jacob complete the main cast.

“The costumes are amazing,” says Coyle, best known for roles in Covert Affairs and Crossbones. “I had to travel to Paris to be fitted to have suits made – I’ve never had suits made before. Even though the legs were far too wide for my tastes, they were beautiful suits – and Mamie’s worn some incredible things.”

Oliver Goldstick
Oliver Goldstick

Gummer, who plays Paul’s American ex-wife, continues: “Our designer Chattoune is a genius. Her scope and her appreciation for every single element and character is so specific and, for me, a costume fitting is always so informative and I’ve learned so much about my character, Helen, through that process.”

There was more to the appeal of starring in The Collection than just the costumes, however. Created by Oliver Goldstick (Ugly Betty), the series is set in a time when France is recovering from the Second World War – a period that Gummer (Emily Owens MD) says was brought to life immediately in the scripts.

“It was so engaging and I felt really pulled in by it,” she explains. “When I was done reading it, I wanted more. It was so clear from the outset that Oliver was so passionate and so well informed about every aspect of this time and of the characters – he worked on it for nearly a decade. Whenever you sign on to a television project, when you’re only given a couple of scripts to read, it is a bit of a leap of faith but I just sensed that we were in very good hands.”

Riley (Da Vinci’s Demons) picks up: “It was really visceral and there’s an element of it that, despite being a fashion show, felt kind of ugly, which was appealing. The darkness behind it, just beneath the surface, is very appealing as far as a world that seems so shiny but all that glitters is not gold.

“It all starts from the script and if the script is great, it makes your job a lot easier. It’s like driving a really nice car – it makes it easier to do your thing on top. If you’re polishing a turd, it makes your job a bit harder but thankfully they’re brilliant scripts.”

The actor is also full of praise for director Dearbhla Walsh, who he says shared the same passion for The Collection as Goldstick. “Dearbhla was the perfect backup because she was very excitable and cared very deeply about the project and had strong opinions,” he explains. “Even if you don’t always agree with them, it’s always nice to have someone who clearly knows what they want. You can disagree but at least you can trust someone has a vision for the show. It makes you feel safer about slipping up.”

The Collection is set in post-Occupation Paris
The Collection is set in post-Occupation Paris

The story plays on the traditional upstairs-downstairs dynamics often found in period drama by splitting the fashion house into front-of-house and backstage areas.

“There’s a place where it’s all elegance and then there’s backstage where it’s catty and there’s a lot going on,” Riley reveals. “It’s something I don’t think has been done before; I don’t think anybody’s really opened the doors on a fashion house and said, ‘This is what it’s like.’ It’s an interesting backdrop. It’s like another character, this sense of having just come out of this incredibly shameful period of French history – it’s so fresh. Everyone’s reeling and trying to recover from it.”

Speaking to the trio, it’s clear they have an affinity for each other as well as the show they’re working on – a relationship they say came very naturally and easily to them.

Coyle reveals he first met Riley in a Starbucks just before the first script read-through: “It was a fateful meeting. I feel like we immediately slipped into an easy working relationship.”

Riley continues: “The first scene we shot was very indicative of the brothers’ relationship. I was in the bath, getting completely naked while your brother just sits on the toilet chatting to you. It really said a lot about their relationship very quickly.

Much of the action was shot in Wales
Huge stages were built in Wales to accommodate the elaborate sets

“It showed a great deal of confidence from the producers in our abilities to do that kind of thing on the first day. Similarly, the first couple of days with Mamie were crazy. They gave us our biggest, most fraught emotional scenes. Normally they let you get a feel for it but they were just like, ‘Here you go.’ But we got through it. There was a lot of generosity and goodwill and care. It’s hard when you’re thrown those tough scenes straight off the bat and everybody’s getting used to everybody else. It’s really tricky to pull that stuff on early on.”

Gummer, Meryl Streep’s eldest daughter, adds: “It was really like a sink or swim. It was good because people are essentially trying to survive, they’re trying to make their love endure, they’re trying to keep their families together, they’re trying to stay afloat.”

It’s not just the costumes that help transport the actors to post-war Paris but the sets as well. Although exterior shots were filmed in the French capital, huge stages were built in Wales to accommodate the sets.

Coyle says: “The production is amazing, the sets are brilliant. When you walk into the sets they’re just beautiful. It helps immensely to be able to transport yourself to where you’re meant to be.”

Gummer continues: “It’s like walking through a wardrobe. You see evidence of the ravages of war, contrasted to the stark determination to rebuild and beautify life again.

Produced by Lookout Point, Artis Pictures and MFP, the eight-part series is executive produced by Goldstick, Anne Thomopoulos, Pascal Breton for French production partner Federation Entertainment, and Kate Croft. BBC Worldwide is handling international sales.

The Collection has been picked up by both France Télévisions and Amazon, which is set to launch it on September 2.

“It’s clear they care and they want to make a big splash with it,” Riley says of the SVoD platform. “The one thing that’s very different about streaming services, it seems, is they’re more confident. Despite the fact it’s a coproduction where so many people have an opinion that it ends up being produced by committee, they seem to have a lot more faith in the showrunner, saying, ‘Go and do your thing.’”

Gummer concludes: “It seems they grant a lot more artistic freedom, which is a great vote of confidence and that trickles down – the trust they place in Oliver that he’s then handed down to us. You can feel a real ownership of it, which is great.”

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Women re-energise crime drama

Anna Friel in ITV’s Marcella, which looks set to get a second season

In honour of ITV’s Brit noir series Marcella, DQ looks at some of the women detectives who have helped reinvigorate a genre that used to be the preserve of cantankerous middle-aged men.

When ITV launched the excellent Prime Suspect in 1991, female coppers were still a novelty on UK television. But these days it seems as though the entire police system is in the hands of no-nonsense women taking on a world of desensitised or deranged male bastards.

When they aren’t dealing with criminals, they generally have to contend with the fact that their husbands and colleagues are also a) psychotic, b) philanderers or c) perversely obstructive.

 Sergeant Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) in Happy Valley
Sergeant Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) in Happy Valley

For the most part, the female cop formula seems to be working, with little indication as yet that the UK audience is getting bored by it.

Despite its various structural flaws, ITV’s Marcella, starring Anna Friel, has just finished its eight-part run with a solid audience of around five million and looks like a decent bet for a season two renewal.

Other female cops who have secured a strong fanbase include DS Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) in Broadchurch, Sergeant Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) in Happy Valley, DI Lindsay Denton (Keeley Hawes) in Line of Duty and Superintendent Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson) in The Fall, which returns for a third season this year.

And it doesn’t end there. Other female crimefighters include the cast of Channel 4’s No Offence and Detectives Janet Scott and Rachel Bailey in ITV’s Scott & Bailey. The latter, which starred Lesley Sharp and Suranne Jones, finished this April.

Saga Noren (Sofia Helin) in Danish/Swedish drama The Bridge
Saga Noren (Sofia Helin) in Danish/Swedish drama The Bridge

Without exception, all of these shows have achieved good to great ratings. Sometimes this is down to the writing, but more often than not it feels as though the real secret of their success is the quality of the female leads. All of the above shows have been graced with exceptional acting performances that make you stay loyal even if the wider production starts to lose its direction.

Based on IMDb scores, Marcella doesn’t actually fare that well, scoring 7.1. This is probably a reflection of the gaps in the plot, which caused a lot of angst on social media platforms like Twitter. Much stronger are shows like Happy Valley, Broadchurch, The Fall and Line of Duty, which achieved scores in the 8.3 to 8.5 range.

Sandra Winckler (Marie Dompnier) in Witnesses
Sandra Winckler (Marie Dompnier) in France Télévisions’ Witnesses

With the general success of female cops, it’s no surprise that ITV is going back to its Prime Suspect franchise with Tennison. This show, from Lynda La Plante, imagines the central character, Jane Tennison, as a young woman starting out on her career. Set in Hackney in the 1970s, it recreates a world where women police constables are treated with suspicion by their male colleagues.

The female cop theme is not, of course, restricted to the UK. It has played a big part in the emergence of Nordic noir as a global force. Writer Hans Rosenfeldt, who gaves us Marcella, previously introduced us to Saga Noren (Sofia Helin) in his acclaimed Danish/Swedish copro The Bridge. And this then gave rise to UK/France copro The Tunnel, where viewers have been beguiled by feisty French cop Elise Wassermann (Clemence Poesy).

Equally important has been Danish broadcaster DR’s The Killing, which saw Sofie Grabol playing DI Sarah Lund. This was adapted for the US, where Grabol’s role was played by Mireille Enos as Sarah Linden.

Charlotte Lindholm in ARD’s long-running crime franchise Tatort, set in Hanover
Charlotte Lindholm in ARD’s long-running crime franchise Tatort, set in Hanover

In France, meanwhile, audiences on public broadcaster France Télévisions have recently been introduced to Sandra Winckler (Marie Dompnier) in Witnesses (Les Temoins). More mainstream is Candice Renoir, about a French police commandant, played by Cecile Bois, who solves crimes in the South of France. The show has also secured a number of sales around Europe.

The US, of course, has never been afraid to place female cops on the frontline – think back to Cagney & Lacey or Angie Dickinson as Sergeant ‘Pepper’ Anderson in Police Woman. More recently the mantle of number one tough female cop has been taken up by Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) in NBC’s long-running procedural Law & Order: SVU. The character of Benson has appeared in 385 episodes of the show and risen to become commanding officer of the SVU division.

Jennifer Lopez in Shades of Blue
Jennifer Lopez plays an single-mother NYPD cop in Shades of Blue

Angie Harmon, as Jane Rizzoli in TNT’s Rizzoli & Isles, is another who deserves to be given a medal for services to the TV industry. Among the new female cops is Harlee Santos, a single-mother NYPD detective played by Jennifer Lopez in Shades of Blue.

Countries where female cops are not so prominent include Germany and Italy, where the chaps still get to solve most crimes. But even here there are a few exceptions.

One is Charlotte Lindholm, a detective in the Hanover-set production of ARD’s long-running crime franchise Tatort. She has been played by Maria Furtwangler since 2002, making her something of a German TV icon. Italy, meanwhile, gave us Donna Detective, in which Detective Lisa Milani (played by Lucrezia Lante Della Rovere) requests a desk job in a small town outside of Rome in order to spend more time with her family. As luck would have it, she gets called back to assist with a major case and is placed in charge of an entire investigative squad in the capital.

The Fall Stella-Gibson
Gillian Anderson returns for a third season of The Fall this year

The clear message from all of the above is that female cops have reinvigorated the detective genre, creating a new kind of character-based complexity around ideas like work-family balance, competing in what is perceived to be a man’s world, tackling problems from a female perspective and demonstrating skill sets that run counter to traditional assumptions.

What’s missing, perhaps, is a black or Asian female lead. There have been fleeting sightings (in US shows like Southland, The Wire, Rogue and Deception). But as yet there is nothing comparable to the breakthrough made by Idris Elba in BBC hit series Luther.

Given the recent strength of British broadcasters in the female cop genre, this is an area where they should really bite the bullet.

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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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