Tag Archives: Greece

Directing the flow

After a decade away from the small screen, veteran Greek director Manousos Manousakis talks to DQ about returning to TV with To Kokkino Potami (Red River) and why historical dramas should talk as much to the present as the past.

A master of hit romance series throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Greek director/scriptwriter Manousos Manousakis has made a triumphant comeback to television with his stirring historical series To Kokkino Potami (Red River), branded by mesmerised viewers as “the love story of the season.”

Based on the eponymous novel by Charis Tsirkinidis, it follows the real-life story of a prominent young couple from Pontus, a then Greek-populated region on the southern coast of the Black Sea, at the turn of the 19th century. Years after their arranged engagement as children, Miltos Pavlidis (Ioannis Papazisis) and Ifigeneia Nikolaidi (Anastasia Pantousi), now young adults, meet by chance in Constantinople and fall madly in love before discovering each other’s identity. Their romance flourishes amidst the unrest started by the rebellion of the Young Turks political reform movement against the rule of Sultan Abdul Hamid II and fights to survive through a line-up of events that lead to extreme violence against minorities.

Manousos Manousakis with cast members on the Red River set

Filmed in 16 locations across Greece, Russia and France with a cast of 170 actors and more than 1,100 extras, mixing languages and idioms, the 30-part series is set during the turbulent era surrounding the events of the Pontic Greek genocide, which remains today unrecognised by international politics.

The hotly anticipated production opened with an astonishing 30% viewing share in dynamic audiences on its Sunday primetime premiere in October and kept climbing the charts in following weeks, thus offering new channel Open Beyond the fiction breakthrough it longed for since its rebrand from Epsilon under new ownership in 2018.

Having dedicated the past decade to movie-making as Greece’s recession haunted its TV industry, Manousakis feels thrilled to be working on the small screen again. “Television is my home. It makes me happy and brings me close to the people. It’s the greatest joy for a creator like me to be stopped by viewers on the street and be told how they like what you do or how much they missed you,” he smiles.

Although he had picked his theme for the series and started detailed historical research about four years ago, making the series a reality was a matter of finding the right host for such an ambitious project. Russian-Greek businessman and former politician Ivan Savvidis, a newcomer to the domestic TV industry and of Pontic Greek origin himself, became that host soon after acquiring Open Beyond. Manousakis recalls that “by good coincidence, Savvidis was already familiar with the novel and personally embraced the project from the first moment.” Open Beyond also produces.

With a sigh, the director said how much he wished that Red River was not as tragically relevant to the present day as it is – a nod to the incessant warfare in Syria. Nonetheless, one of the reasons that made him want to make this series so much was to show the similarities of the period with today, a whole century later. “The politics of the great powers are repeating themselves in a nightmarishly identical way,” he says. “Yesterday’s allies were tomorrow’s enemies, and vice versa, but the people couldn’t see it. Like nowadays, our heroes believed that their daily lives were in the safe zone, that they could never be threatened and that the law and order would always protect them. But the world just disappeared from under their feet, literally within hours.”

Over 170 actors, 1,100 extras and 600 costumes are needed for Red River

The love story of Miltos and Ifigeneia masterfully unfolds, intertwined with real facts, movements and political motivations of the time. The biggest task, says Manousakis, was to acquire the necessary historical knowledge, though not in a logistical way.

“The challenge is to get emotionally involved in the story and make it part of your everyday,” he explains. “To see the people of that era as your relatives and friends, in flesh and bone, nerves and real existence, not as characters on paper. When you have such a subject, that era becomes your everyday and your reality, while you suffer, rejoice and celebrate alongside your heroes, and come back against the same situations as them.”

The actors have had to study the era thoroughly too – not just events but attitudes and morals. “The feelings are the same, then and now, but the way we express them and speak of them is worlds apart,” Manousakis says. “How people interacted; how a young man in love held the hand of his girlfriend then or how he would dare a first kiss, as opposed to now; how the mother spoke to her child; the neighbours to each other; the priest to his church; it’s a different era, with different behavioural and relationship rules.”

Throughout his career, Manousakis has always overviewed his projects’ scripts. His hard copy of To Kokkino Potami, about 200 pages originally, is filled with some 300 inserts of his own notes. The writing process starts with scriptwriters Nikos Apeiranthitis and Dora Masklavanou, who send him the first draft, which he makes remarks on, before forwarding it to his longtime partners Stavros Avdoulos and Irene Ritsoni for changes. He reads through the updated version and completes it up to a certain point, then the script is back to the first two, who finalise it and give it to Manousakis for one last comb-through.

The daily filming schedule is a challenge and an achievement in itself, he adds, due to the numerous talent and locations involved. Each episode requires eight to 10 days of shooting. “We do have good technology and a very good financial environment, but beyond that, we need to be creative, clever and daring Ulysses in order to bring that surplus value to the screen. We need to go around and find the best solutions for the most difficult situations,” he comments.

“The challenge is to get emotionally involved in the story and make it part of your everyday”

Regardless of his 10-year break from making series, ratings confirm that Manousakis is as commercial as he ever was. He categorically denies having a “recipe” or “key” to success, though, joking that a producer can’t order the director to make a calculated success comprising five grammes of love, six grammes of violence and eight grammes of sex. “If you start with, ‘let’s do this because it’s catchy,’ you fail,” he says.

On the contrary, he believes a prerequisite for success is the love that anyone involved in the project should feel towards it, from the producers to the extras. Furthermore, for a romance to become an iconic hit, the words between the lovers, for example, should reflect true love, which the viewer can immediately recognise, since “everybody has both faked interest, and truly loved in their lifetime.”

He affirms that, in every series he has done, he was burning with a desire to share each story with audiences: “You can make nothing if you are not in love with what you do. The dominant feeling is the Eros towards your subject; being unable to not concern yourself with it, and nothing but it. Then, it’s paramount joy when the will of the creator matches the will of the viewers. And that means that what the creator wants in that given moment is what the society craves for.”

Even though the habits of viewers have changed in the last 10 years, what remains invariable is their need to become involved in what they watch. “If this is achieved, they drift away” into the story, he notes.

Despite the fact that Manousakis has been successful in different genres, from police procedural Tmima Ithon (1992) to comedy Gia Mia Gynaika Kai Ena Autokinito (2001), he is best known for dramatic and socially influential love stories. The clashing socioeconomic backgrounds of his starring couples and their struggle to live happily ever after against stereotypes and prejudices were always a focal point in his work – a wealthy architect with a Roma gypsy (Psithyroi Kardias, 1997), a cleric with a congregant (Aggigma Psychis, 1998), a Muslim with a Christian (Min Mou Les Antio, 2004), to name a few. Only now, in Red River, his first historical series, there is “a differentiation in the size of things,” he says, as the contrast escalates on a much broader level and gains ecumenical dimensions, seen in the context of horrendous atrocities.

Director Manousakis at work

“In this case, the clash is not between the couple and their entourage, but between them as a couple, and the historical situation,” he exclaims. “In a collapsing society, where laws, moral values and all they had for granted is falling apart, everything vanished except from their love.”

Here too, however, like in many of his previous dramas, Manousakis is concerned with bigotry, racism and fanaticism, all of which he condemns by showing the extent they can wreck a healthy society. He explores “the processes that the man next door, the friend and neighbour who smiled to me yesterday go through until the moment they become my persecutor, my killer or my rapist.”

Acknowledging the attraction of period dramas worldwide, the director explains that people everywhere are, and will always be, interested in history as long as it’s not handled as a museum exhibit. “History is a flowing reality in which we should participate. It should be relevant to today, and its past-time heroes should be recognisable by present-day viewers. A 20-year-old girl should be able to identify with that 1908 girl of the same age,” he says.

While his most iconic, socially sensitive romances have always triggered popular debate, this time Manousakis aspires to motivate his audience not only to become more aware of timeless international political games, but also to disconnect the notion of patriotism from fascism in the collective mind of modern-day Greeks.

“We have wrongly matched up patriotism with political ideologies and are intimidated to express love to our country out of fear of being negatively labelled,” he surmises. “Both the right wing, the left wing, the communist and the anarchist, can each love their country, and all have the right to do so without being characterised for their beliefs.”

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Unwanted guest

Following appearances on screen this year in Sanditon and A Confession, Kate Ashfield tells DQ about continuing her burgeoning writing career by penning Finnish psychological drama Huone 301 (Man in Room 301).

Kate Ashfield

Two years after her first writing project debuted, Kate Ashfield has found time between acting roles to pick up her pen once again. But while Channel 4’s Born to Kill, co-written with Tracey Malone, was the study of an apparently model teenager with hidden psychopathic tendencies, her latest project is entirely a family affair.

Produced for Finnish SVoD platform Elisa Viihde, psychological drama Huone 301 (Man in Room 301) tells the story of the Kurtti family, whose lives change irrevocably one fateful night. Years later, the secrets of that night start to unravel on a family vacation in Greece, pushing their family ties to the limit.

Ashfield, best known for her role opposite Simon Pegg in comedy-horror film Shaun of the Dead, was recently seen on screen in ITV period drama Sanditon and the same broadcaster’s true crime drama A Confession. But although she considers acting and writing on a level par, she says she is enjoying the creative freedom that comes with writing.

She began work on Man in Room 301 shortly after Born to Kill aired in 2017, when UK producer Wall to Wall Media approached her with a one-page outline for a drama about a British family that goes on holiday to Spain, only to suspect a man staying in the same apartment building is the grown-up killer of their three-year-old nephew.

After meeting with Elisa, Ashfield wrote a treatment for the show, turning it into a six-part series about a Finnish family that travels to Greece, with the action set across two timelines. The platform gave the green light after reading the first script, with the series now set to launch on December 19.

Man in Room 301 looks at universal themes around a family and its secrets

“The starting point was if someone was 12 when they did it [the crime] and were now 24, would you recognise them? Would it even be them?” the writer tells DQ, acknowledging the show’s similarities to the Jamie Bulger case in the UK, in which two 10-year-old boys were convicted of abducting and killing two-year-old Jamie in 1993. “But it’s very different in Finland because they don’t criminalise children like we do.” (The age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales is 10 and in Scotland it’s 12, having been raised from eight this year.)

“When the story was reset in Finland, it became more attractive to me as an idea because we’re such a small country and we have such black and white views, whereas in another country it’s not that clear cut. The criminal age in Finland is 15, so if something like that did happen, they would just stay at home. They’d probably get counselling, they might move school but they might not. It would just be treated in a whole different way, so that makes it a slightly greyer subject matter, which is always interesting.”

The story introduces a multi-generational family who go on holiday to Greece, only for the grandfather to suspect the man staying in room 301 is the killer. The two timelines, set 12 years apart, then slowly reveal how the events in the past and the present day collide.

Cameras roll on Man in Room 301

For Ashfield, writing Man in Room 301 offered her the chance to delve into another culture and write about universal themes involving a family and its secrets. But the slow, brooding thriller, which is directed by Mikko Kuparinen, posed several challenges for her, not least the cultural differences between Finland and the UK.

“They tend to not want anything to be too dark,” she explains. “The death of a child is terrible and they don’t want to focus on that in the way some UK television series might do. We’re also a lot more emotional and physical with each other than they are. They don’t say a lot; it all has to be pared down. Watching Nordic series, it’s less expressive. If you wrote a scene where they greet and hug each other, it just isn’t Finnish. They’d say, ‘We’d never do that.’ So it’s mainly in the way they relate to each other that’s different.”

Ashfield would regularly travel to Helsinki for meetings with Elisa, Wall to Wall and production partner Warner Bros International Television Production Finland. Scripts were initially written in English before the shooting versions were translated into Finnish.

Man in Room 301 centres on a Finnish family with a tragic past on holiday in Greece

“Because it’s about relationships, all those things are universal, so that was easy to negotiate in a different language,” the writer says. “It was just learning about the landscape and the culture, which was different. Because we were doing it with Warner Bros Finland, they were in script meetings and talked to anything they felt would be more appropriate or ring more true to people in Finland. I had one character house-sitting for somebody and they said, ‘We just don’t have any reference of that.’ It’s just the smallest things, you could never know what [the notes] were going to be when you sent the scripts across. That made it an interesting experience.”

In between script meetings, Ashfield would explore Helsinki and the surrounding area to build a picture of the landscape, the types of properties and the lifestyles of the people who live there to better inform her writing. One example is when she wrote that a character would break into the post box of another character in an apartment building lobby, only to discover mail is delivered to each individual apartment and lobby-set post boxes don’t exist.

“It’s really strange little things like that that you keep coming up against. You just wouldn’t guess it. You can’t break a door down in Finland; because of the weather, they’re much stronger. Also, the Finns, because they have such a strong welfare system and have universal basic income, they don’t have homelessness and they’re just inherently better people in terms of not breaking the law. If their child was drink driving and hit another car, they would take them to the police station to confess. Here we might say, ‘Well no one got hurt and we won’t tell anyone.’ But they wouldn’t do that because it’s just wrong. All that stuff is quite interesting and you end up looking at your own culture in a different way.”

The drama’s director Mikko Kuparinen

Unlike on Born to Kill, Ashfield wrote all six scripts herself, comparing the process to completing a “massive jigsaw” as she contemplated how the story would play out across the different timelines and use the juxtaposition between the scenic Finnish countryside and the sun-drenched Greek landscape, where Athens-based Inkas Film and TV Productions provided coproduction support. Warner Bros holds international remake rights while APC Studios is distributing the original series.

“You also have to put story hooks in,” she continues. “This has no ad breaks [in each episode] so it’s not like Born to Kill where you have to have a hook every act out. That in itself becomes slightly different storytelling. It’s very much character-led, especially as Finns are more contained emotionally so you need to really get into their minds. It becomes more psychological in that sense.”

An actor now embarking on a writing career, Ashfield says she wants every part to be good, from the grandma to the young girl, with scenes viewers won’t expect and the ability to shock and challenge the audience. The series stars Antti Virmavirta (The Other Side of Hope) and Kaija Pakarinen (Devil’s Bride) as the parents, Jussi Vatanen (The Unknown Soldier) and Andrei Alén (Rig 45) as the grown-up children and Leena Pöysti (Laugh or Die) and Kreeta Salminen (All The Sins) as their wives.

Ashfield faced cultural differences between Finland and the UK when writing the series

“It’s also about the dialogue,” she notes. “I’ve been acting for years and you just want everything you get your characters to do and say to be authentic and not expositional or contradictory emotionally. I get a real feeling of the characters, and that’s the joy. That happens when I write with other people as well. I know those people, I know what they’re like. That’s part of it for me.”

With Man in Room 301, she hopes to entertain viewers with a story that takes them out of their own lives, while also prompting them to imagine what they might do in a similar situation to the characters on screen.

“Hopefully you relate to all of the characters and think, in that circumstance, ‘I could have done that,’” she adds. “Who knows how one will react. I wanted to make them all as likeable as possible in that scenario.”

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Rewriting history

James Bond screenwriters Robert Wade and Neal Purvis imagine a world in which the Nazis occupy Britain in the BBC’s adaptation of Len Deighton’s alternative-history novel SS-GB. DQ visits the set.

At first glance, the set of the 1940s-era London police station looks unassuming and inconspicuous. A map of the River Thames hangs on one wall, beside a board displaying the details of ongoing murder investigations. A telephone switchboard stands in another part of the office, while adjacent tables are laden with an assortment of maps, newspaper cuttings, mugshots and used ashtrays.

Neal Purvis and Robert Wade

‘Wanted’ posters show the faces and details of eight people sought for a train robbery, while a steam train calendar displays the dates of November 1941.

Yet look a little closer and unusual details start to emerge – notepaper headed with the word ‘Metropolitanpolizei’ sticks out from the top of a typewriter sitting on one desk, next to notebooks embossed with Nazi insignia.

Stepping outside the office belonging to Detective Superintendent Douglas Archer, ‘Metropolitanpolizei’ appears again, this time on a sign hanging over the doorway, while Nazi banners hang in the stairwell of a nearby spiral staircase. The scene is jarred further by the sight of soldiers standing in khaki SS uniforms.

This is the setting for SS-GB, the forthcoming BBC1 drama based on Len Deighton’s 1976 alternative-history novel that imagines the Nazis won the Battle of Britain in 1940.

Set in Nazi-occupied London, the story follows DS Archer (Sam Riley) who is working under the brutal SS regime. But while investigating what appears to be a simple black market murder, he is dragged into a much darker and treacherous world where the stakes are as high as they were during the war.

US actress Kate Bosworth stars alongside Riley as American journalist Barbara Barga, who becomes inextricably linked with the murder case Archer is investigating. The cast also includes Jason Flemyng, James Cosmo, Aneurin Barnard, Maeve Dermody and Rainer Bock.

The five-part series, produced by Sid Gentle Films, has been adapted from Deighton’s novel by Bafta-winning writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade – most famous for writing five James Bond features, including Spectre, Skyfall and Casino Royale.

The drama received its world premiere this week at the Berlin Film Festival, ahead of its UK debut on Sunday February 19. Distributor BBC Worldwide has also sold the series to broadcasters in Germany (RTL), Croatia (Pickbox), Sweden (SVT), Greece (Cosmote), Israel (HOT/Cellcom), Iceland (RUV) and Poland (Showmax), while it will also air on BBC First channels in Africa, Australia, Benelux and the Middle East, as well as UKTV in New Zealand.

It is directed by German director Philipp Kadelbach, whose credits include Naked Among Wolves and Generation War. Sally Woodward Gentle, Lee Morris, Purvis, Wade and Lucy Richer are executive producers. The series is produced by Patrick Schweitzer.

As fans of Deighton, Purvis and Wade were instantly drawn to the series, which marks their first move into television, when they were approached about the project by Woodward Gentle.

Maeve Dermody plays a girl caught up in the British Resistance

“It’s a pretty faithful adaptation,” says Purvis of the screen version. “The biggest challenge was [in the book] we were following Archer from his point of view. The fact he can’t trust people means it’s very difficult to talk to other people about what he’s thinking, so it was all about making it comprehensible because it’s quite a complex plot and nothing’s straightforward. The Resistance has got in-fighting and the German army and SS are opposed to each other, so it’s just finding a way to navigate through the story in an intriguing but understandable way.”

Wade picks up: “I think I understand it now – but we had to simplify it. Since Len wrote the book, there’s a bit more now known about what was going on in Britain to prepare for an invasion, so we were able to access those sources and that gave us background for the British Resistance and the real mechanisms that were set up in event of an invasion. But really our main job was to make the most of the drama within the story and, for that reason, we made a few changes that kept certain characters alive longer than they were in the book.”

Already an established genre in the world of fiction, alternative history is becoming a hot topic in television, with SS-GB following hot on the heels of Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, which plays out in a world where the Axis powers won the Second World War and America has been split between Japanese and Nazi rule, with a buffer zone separating the two.

SS-GB premiered this week at the Berlin Film Festival

Wade draws a distinction between the two series, in particular describing the Amazon drama as closer to science-fiction because the events it portrays weren’t ever close to happening. SS-GB, however, was within the realms of possibility.

“With The Man in the High Castle, which is set in 1962, you’re talking about the consequences [of the Second World War]. But in this you are actually living through the Occupation and the game isn’t necessarily over. It’s not a historical result, history is alive.”

Wade and Purvis co-wrote films Let Him Have It (1991) and Plunkett & Macleane (1999) before being asked to write Bond movies The World Is Not Enough, Die Another Day and the super-spy’s four most recent outings starring Daniel Craig. Other credits include 2003’s Johnny English, a spoof of the espionage genre starring Rowan Atkinson.

“We’ve written together for a very long time,” Purvis says. “We do that because we enjoy it. There’s more to it than just writing; you’ve got to go abroad and it can be quite pressured. So having two people has always been good because when things are going well, you can always go down the pub together – and when things are going badly, you can go down the pub together! It gets the job done well to be able to discuss things.”

With scripts approved by Deighton, the writers say they haven’t felt the need to be on set every day, but have kept in touch by watching the daily rushes. They were also consulted during casting and say they were very pleased by the decision to put Riley in the lead role. “We wanted someone who was a film actor – this is his first television job so it’s just that thing of trying to keep it like a big movie,” Purvis notes. “It gave it a bit more oomph to have someone like Sam.”

If Riley’s DS Archer is akin to Sam Spade, the protagonist of Dashiell Hammett’s noir thriller The Maltese Falcon, then US actress Kate Bosworth is firmly in the femme fatale role.

“She’s an American journalist who has just arrived on the inaugural New York-London Lufthansa flight, which is one of Len’s nice touches,” Wade offers. “She’s a femme fatale. She might be working for the Resistance, she might be a spy for the Germans, she might be an agent for the Americans – you don’t know. She’s someone who’s attractive to Archer and attracted by Archer. So it’s a dance. He’s trying to figure out whether she’s involved in this murder and she’s trying to figure out what she can get out of this guy.

“We balance her with Maeve Dermody, who plays a girl caught up in the Resistance and who is quite messed up. She’s an English girl and her parents were killed during the invasion. But she’s actually spying on Archer.”

But how did their experience on SS-GB compare to scripting a Bond movie? “It’s easier in the sense that there’s a book and you don’t have massive expectations,” Wade admits. “We’re very proud of this but we were able to write it in a free way. Hopefully there are some real surprises in this.

“With a Bond film, people are expecting certain things. The other aspect for us, as it’s our first TV series, was that having that large canvas to be able to tell a story with twists and turns over five hours is great fun, and you get the freedom you don’t have in an hour-and-a-half movie.”

Purvis adds: “We have been approached by TV a lot but we’ve always said no to everything. This was the first time we said yes. It’s a genre one can feel comfortable with. Len’s a great writer. It just seemed to be appealing and something we could do.”

For locations manager Antonia Grant, the toughest part of her job on SS-GB was finding appropriate exteriors around London for the show’s wartime setting. “It’s always a challenge for a locations department to remove the modern world,” she says. “We rely on the art department as well to help us so it’s very much a combined effort.

“There will be some things that are quite obvious [locations] as per the script that you have to go and look for. But then otherwise it’s coming up with different options to put to the director and designer and it’s a lot of driving around, photographing different places, chatting to people, persuading people to let us film.

“It’s always lovely looking for new locations but, on period dramas, there’s a limited amount because more things are changing and being modernised. I’ve shot on several new locations in this. Also, the nature of SS-GB, being alternative history, means you’re looking for quite different locations compared with those used for The Hour and certainly Call the Midwife [both also period dramas on which Grant has worked].”

After piecing together a 300-page script and bringing Deighton’s story to the screen, Wade and Purvis have one eye on their next big-screen feature – but tease that this might not be the end of the story for SS-GB.

“History is still in play, it’s not ended,” adds Wade. “Some characters have died, some have grown. I’m very pleased with the way it ends and there could be more.”

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