A story of divided families and a divided city, Der gleiche Himmel (The Same Sky) unwraps several different strands taking place in Berlin in 1974.
East German agent Lars (Tom Schilling) is sent to West Berlin as a ‘Romeo’ agent on a mission to seduce high-ranking British intelligence officer Lauren (Sofia Helin). Elsewhere, gay teacher Axel (Hannes Wegener) takes dramatic steps to escape the oppressive East German regime, and Lars’s cousin Klara (Stephanie Amarell), a talented swimmer, proves she is willing to do anything to join the East’s Olympic team by taking pills that produce disturbing side effects.
Speaking to DQ TV, actors Helin, Schilling, Friederike Becht and writer Paula Milne reveal the origins of the drama and the challenges associated with producing this six-hour series.
It is produced by UFA Fiction, Rainmark Films and distributor Beta Films for German broadcaster ZDF and is due to debut next month. It will also air on Netflix.
Writer Paula Milne and director Oliver Hirschbiegel discuss their upcoming Cold War drama Der gleiche Himmel (The Same Sky), in which a ‘Romeo’ agent is sent on a seductive mission in 1970s Berlin.
When it was first released in cinemas, German feature Downfall was praised for its gripping portrayal of Hitler’s last stand and Bruno Ganz’s striking performance as the embattled Führer.
Twelve years on, however, Oliver Hirshbiegel’s film is largely remembered for one iconic scene inside Hitler’s bunker – in which he rants and raves at his officers – that has been parodied hundreds of times to comedic effect. A quick YouTube search can find the dictator angrily lashing out at news that he has been banned from Xbox Live or at the latest plot twist in Game of Thrones.
“That’s hard to top,” Hirschbiegel jokes. “I can be very proud of this phenomenon – it’s a first in film history where a scene has been used over and over again. The most recent one I’ve seen is about [British politician] Boris Johnson finding out the UK voted to leave the European Union – it’s brilliant and very funny.”
Whether the director’s latest project, six-part Cold War thriller Der gleiche Himmel (The Same Sky) for German broadcaster ZDF, can earn similar cult status remains to be seen. But on the back of smash-hit spy dramas Deutschland 83 and The Night Manager, it’s certainly tapping into a genre riding a wave of popularity.
Set in 1970s Berlin, the story centres on East German agent Lars (Tom Schilling) who is sent to West Berlin as a ‘Romeo’ agent on a mission to seduce high-ranking British intelligence officer Lauren (Sofia Helin, pictured top).
Elsewhere, gay teacher Axel (Hannes Wegener) takes dramatic steps to escape the oppressive East German regime, and Lars’ cousin Klara (Stephanie Amarell), a talented swimmer, proves she is willing to do anything to join the East’s Olympic swimming team by taking pills that produce disturbing side effects.
A story of divided families and a divided city, The Same Sky is written by Paula Milne (The Politician’s Wife) and produced by UFA Fiction, distributor Beta Film and Mia Film, in association with Rainmark Films. Netflix has picked up the series for multiple countries worldwide, including English-speaking territories.
The show has its origins as a passion project for Beta CEO Jan Mojto, who had been involved in 2006 Oscar-winning film The Lives of Others and was interested in commissioning a TV series focused on divided Berlin.
And Milne – who is no stranger to Germany, having penned 1990 drama Die Kinder (The Children) for BBC1 – was approached by Rainmark’s Tracey Scoffield to develop Mojto’s ambitions further. “It was very spy-orientated,” Milne recalls of the initial treatment, “but I felt it should have been more than that. So I re-pitched it and was commissioned to write the scripts. Originally it was going to be in English, but then ZDF got involved and it became German.
“Oliver did all the translations himself – during prep, he would take two hours off every afternoon and translate the whole lot. He would call me and say, ‘We don’t have a word for this, do you have another one?’
“He then printed the scripts with my English on one page and the German version next to it. We worked really well together and, because he was also directing, he was hugely loyal to the material as he was partly involved in delivering it.”
The Same Sky led the writer to immerse herself in research about the Stasi – the East German security force – and the use of Romeo spies. The discovery of a defunct NSA listening station on the outskirts of Berlin also gave Milne a location in which to plant Helin’s intelligence officer.
“We were able to put the characters in there and it opened up a whole new area of research into listening signals,” she says. “It transpired that domes found in the middle of this forest were used to disguise the direction in which the radars were facing, and they often faced West as much as East. That gave it a contemporary conduit [referencing whistleblower Edward Snowden’s 2013 leak of NSA surveillance practices]. It’s always important to look at what resonates with a contemporary audience because otherwise you’re just doing a curiosity piece about the past.”
Milne also stresses the importance of authenticity: “It’s crucial when you do a piece like this, set in the past, that you don’t have what I call ‘precognition with hindsight.’ You don’t write it knowing what happened. You have to write it in the moment and that really helps with the authenticity.”
Hirschbiegel says he was fascinated by the story and immediately hit it off with Milne. “She has a very good way of writing and describing the world and the characters,” the director reveals. “She hardly ever gave me notes and for me, it was irritating – she was totally happy with the results. She said I was brilliant and wonderful, but I kept telling her, ‘You wrote it. It’s a good script!’”
Behind the camera, Hirschbiegel says he tries not to over-stylise the look of a show, instead admitting that he’s a “slave to the story” and keeps his focus on how each scene progresses the plot. But for The Same Sky, strong visual consideration was certainly employed to capture the look and feel of the period and the disparity between East and West Berlin.
Contrasting colour palettes were used to represent the two sides of the city, with hand-held cameras used more often when filming scenes set in the East. Shots in the West, Hirschbiegel explains, were “more stately, more static.”
The director continues: “The idea was for the audience to immediately recognise whether a scene is set in the East or the West. But the challenge was not being able to use any real locations, as we shot in Prague. So you just look at lots of images and try to find matches where you’re shooting. I created my own Kurfurstendamm [a grand boulevard in Berlin], though it is actually smaller than the original.
“The East was easier. They had these eastern bloc pre-fab housing areas everywhere in the East and also in Prague, so we used those. But back in the day, West Berlin was not in good shape. There were lots of ruins and run-down houses, while in the East, all these pre-fab buildings were new because they were built in the 1960s and 70s. Going to Berlin or Prague now, all these old facades have been renovated, while the pre-fab buildings are all fucked up and run-down. So it’s a bit of a challenge to find the proper locations to match what it looked like then.”
Describing The Same Sky as a “serial, not a closed series,” Milne is now preparing a story treatment for a potential second season – though the show’s future depends on how season one is received when it airs in early 2017.
“Ultimately,” she adds, “this is a story about ordinary people who are living in extraordinary times and are forced to make decisions perhaps none of us are confronted with today. It has a morality under it without, I hope, ever being preachy – but I don’t answer the questions, I just pose them!”
As for Hirschbiegel, the director admits he’s now turning down movie projects because he wants to work in television, and has already signed on to direct an episode in the second season of Showtime drama Billions. “It’s more cool right now and it happens so much faster,” he says of the small screen, “and often the scripts are way more relevant and daring. It’s much more of an adventure now to do television than it is to do a movie.”
Paula Milne discusses her latest TV drama, HIM, which she describes as her attempt at writing a male version of big-screen horror Carrie.
While horror has been a resurgent theme in small-screen drama in recent years – think The Walking Dead, Ash vs Evil Dead and American Horror Story – the stories are almost always rooted in an element of fantasy.
It’s notable, then, that ITV drama HIM is described as a “domestic horror,” with the plot playing out against the backdrop of a troubled family living in the heart of suburbia.
Created and written by Paula Milne, the story focuses on a 17-year-old boy (known only as HIM) who is trapped between the two homes of his divorced parents, each now remarried with new families. He is both a reminder of their failures in the past and a threat to their happiness in the future.
Riding a rollercoaster of emotions, he must also contain the terrifying secret that he inherited a supernatural power from his grandfather – a power that his grandmother urges him to use only for good.
And when his 17-year-old stepsister Faith moves into his family home, HIM is irrevocably drawn to her – but they both know their mutual attraction could have devastating consequences.
The three-part drama, currently on air in the UK, is produced by Mainstreet Pictures and executive produced by Laura Mackie and Sally Haynes. It is produced by Chrissy Skinns, directed by Andy De Emmony and distributed internationally by ITV Studios Global Entertainment.
Milne’s writing credits include The Virgin Queen, The Politician’s Husband and White Heat. And, having written political thrillers and cop shows, she was eager to turn her hand to another genre.
“ITV asked me if I would like to write something for them,” Milne recalls of the 2014 conversation that led to HIM. “I wanted to write a horror piece and I think boys get a bad rap, so I told them I wanted to do a male version of Carrie – and, fair play, they went along with it.
“It played to their strengths in the sense that I already wanted it to be set in suburbia and there’s the extended family/divorce stuff and race issues. It’s very contemporary but very ordinary. If the audience believes the ordinariness, they’re more likely to believe [in the lead character’s] power.”
Milne describes genre as “a great friend to a writer,” offering the potential to dress any story up in a variety of different costumes. The daughter of a film critic, the origins of her relationship with horror lie in her watching Hammer Horror and Roger Corman films, though the roots of HIM can also be found in her own family.
Married twice, divorced twice and with four children, the writer says she could see her youngest child Harry struggling with life in his teens and perhaps carrying the disappointment of his parents. She took this foundation and placed on top of it the confusion caused by an attraction to a step-sibling, being replaced by babies in two different homes, and academic struggles – in addition to harbouring a secret power.
“There were various elements I had already thought of and it seemed to be important he didn’t suddenly discover he had this power,” Milne explains. “That’s what happened with Carrie. The shock of that would then drive the whole thing and he would probably have to tell somebody. But if from a very early age his grandmother had seen he could do something, she’d have said his grandfather had the same power and told him to be very careful, so he was.
“But when his parents first split up and he uses his power to throw a cricket ball through the window, that’s when we start to see that his power emerges when he’s deeply emotionally affected and has no way to express it. What can you throw at this boy that could take him on a journey that might end in death – his or someone else’s?”
In the miniseries, HIM has the power of telekinesis – the ability to move objects without touching them. “You should be very specific [with the power],” Milne notes. “By being very specific and confident about the power he has and what he can and cannot do with it, you hope the audience will buy into it.
“But the risk is that the power is lessened by the domestic story. That’s why the nosebleed HIM gets when he uses his power was important – red is anger. But it’s never scary. It’s scary in what could happen to him if he loses control of his power and, arguably, what could happen to somebody else.”
Before putting pen to paper, Milne carried out considerable research into telekinesis and found a whole new world in which to set her story.
“There are people who really do believe it and I needed to know why,” she says. “They feel marginalised and wronged and it was really interesting. So I started with that and then the key incidents of the family and the dynamics. I have a big sheet of Imperial paper and do a storyboard. I always knew it would be three episodes – a trilogy is good, satisfying number. Then you think about the events that lead up to the key incidents. Then there are lots of [story idea] bubbles; I number them, handwrite the scripts twice and then put them on the computer.”
In putting her vision onto the page, Milne also keeps her notes sparse. She doesn’t specify the exact look of a character, instead focusing much more on details such as time of day, or that viewers should not see a character’s face until a certain point in the story, for example.
“I remember on another show, the producer rang and said, ‘Can we change that dinner scene to a breakfast scene,’” she remembers. “I said, ‘No, people have a completely different conversation and are completely different at dinner than they are at breakfast.’”
Milne also forged a strong relationship with director De Emmony, who impressed her with both his technical skills and his interpretation of the emotional material in the script.
“That is quite unusual. Normally you get one or the other, but he was really good,” she says. “He had the challenges. It’s easy to sit there and write it, but he had to do it.
“To get the best out of people, they’ve got to inhabit it, they’ve got to own it. So the key time is in prep. We talk about the concept of the characters and what we’re trying to do. I also got Andy to meet Harry, my son, and showed him pictures of him at that time. So you get him to that place.
I went on set maybe twice. There are some writers who love to be on set, but I’m not one of them. What I really love to do is write. I see the dailies so occasionally I ask for a pick-up scene if someone doesn’t say their line right. But how collaborative the writer is with the director depends on how collaborative the director wants to be, and Andy was [collaborative].”
It’s not those early stages of setting the style and tone of a story that Milne most enjoys, however, but the payoffs that arrive as the plot winds towards its conclusion. She gives one example from the final episode, where HIM’s mother and father discuss him and their regret at how their own relationship fell apart.
“It shows what they went through and that they’re just ordinary people who make mistakes,” Milne explains. “You can’t get a scene like that except at the end when you’ve earned the audience’s interest in them. It’s really important to set things up well and delicately and nuanced, but the real payoffs are always at the end.”
For her next project, Milne jumps genre again and lands in Cold War Germany for 1970s thriller The Same Sky, which debuts in Germany on ZDF in January and then on Netflix around the world. The multi-stranded story concerns an East German Romeo spy sent to the West to seduce a British intelligence officer, a gay teacher trying to escape East Germany and a young girl who turns to steroids as she seeks swimming stardom.
“What was great about writing something like that was [the characters are] ordinary people going through extraordinary times,” she says of the six-part series – a departure from the decidedly extraordinary HIM who finds himself an outcast in very ordinary surroundings.
At timing of writing this column, the C21 Drama Summit is taking place at the British Film Institute in London. In among the numerous producers, broadcasters and distributors attending the event, there has also been a star-studded line-up of screenwriters.
In no particular order, the summit attracted the likes of Stephen Poliakoff, Frank Spotnitz, Harlan Coben, Tony Jordan, Sarah Phelps, Paula Milne, Anna Winger, David Farr, Hans Rosenfeld, James Dormer, Charlie Higson, Simon Mirren, Clive Bradley and Chip Johannessen.
What’s interesting about these scribes is the unusual and idiosyncratic journeys that many of them are currently embarked upon. Rosenfeld, for example, is one of the main architects of acclaimed Scandinavian series The Bridge. But now he is writing an English-language crime series set in London, called Marcella. Winger, meanwhile, is an American who lives in Germany with her husband Joerg. Between them they created the well-reviewed period spy drama Deutschland 83, currently airing in Germany on RTL and around the world.
If it seems odd that an American co-wrote D83, then consider that British writer Paula Milne (The Politician’s Wife) has just done something similar, delivering The Same Sky to ZDF in Germany. In this case, she wrote scripts in English that were then translated into German by director Oliver Hirschbiegel. Clive Bradley, meanwhile, is an English screenwriter who has just finished working as the co-writer on Trapped, a pan-European coproduction set in snowy Iceland.
Harlan Coben, a novelist, has just written his first TV drama, The Five, in collaboration with Danny Brocklehurst (Shameless, Clocking Off). Farr, meanwhile, is a playwright adapting a John Le Carre novel The Night Manager for TV. In one of his anecdotes at the Summit, Farr talked of meeting Le Carre in a north London pub and having to pluck up the courage to tell the great man the last 100 pages of his novel wouldn’t work on TV. Sarah Phelps must have felt just as nervous when she met Hilary Strong of Agatha Christie Ltd to discuss how she would go about adapting Christie’s classic novel And Then There Were None.
Poliakoff’s session was enlightening, providing an insight into the way he has honed his skills as a writer-director. While many would think of him first and foremost as a playwright and screenwriter, Poliakoff spent much of his session discussing the directorial dimension of his latest project Close to the Enemy. Casting, rigorous rehearsals and location selection were as significant to the realisation of Poliakoff’s vision of the series as story and dialogue.
Frank Spotnitz, an American residing in Europe, was at the summit to discuss his latest project for Amazon, The Man in the High Castle, while Chip Johannessen provided insight into the adaptation of Israeli show Prisoners of War into his hit series Homeland. Simon Mirren was in town to talk about the creation of Versailles, the English-language, French production of a quintessentially French subject. That seems a long way from where his career started – as a writer on Casualty.
So what does all the above tell us? Well, it shows that the idea of the writer as a solitary creature is something of a myth. While part of the job inevitably involves shutting the study door and blocking out distractions, just as much is dependent on a willingness and ability to interact with other parts of the production chain.
At the same time, the shift towards international coproduction (in order to realise ambitious creative ideas) means writers have to be surefooted on the international stage. It’s noteworthy just how many of the above scribes have had to collaborate across borders or set scenes abroad. Milne talked about watching rushes of The Same Sky after her words had been translated in German, and having to make a judgement on whether the emotional impact of the dialogue had survived the shift to a new language. Rosenfeld, meanwhile, discussed the support he needed to ensure Marcella’s London life was authentic.
Another theme throughout the summit has been the way the current era of ambitious international drama production allows writers to cut loose creatively. Farr talked about how writers used to be scared to set a scene outside – let alone in a foreign country. But this concern has been blown away as dramas head for increasingly exotic climes.
This freedom is also evident in the range of literary reimaginings currently on show. Charlie Higson’s interpretation of Jekyll and Hyde (in which he injects his own mythology), Tony Jordan’s literary mash-up Dickensian and James Dormer’s reworking of the Beowulf saga are all examples of how traditional budgeting and commissioning constraints have fallen away.
Of course, a key implication of the above is that writers need to be trusted to deliver against bold objectives. And this is creating a challenge for the scripted business. Understandably, the broadcasters and distributors that put up millions of dollars to make drama projects a reality are anxious to ensure they work with proven writers. This is causing a logjam, with the best writers often booked up for years to come.
While this is good news for those writers who are in demand, the clear message is that the industry needs to improve the flow of new writing talent coming through. C21 and Red Planet are both playing their part with scriptwriting competitions, but there needs to be a more formal solution to this issue if the drama business is to keep up its extraordinary creative momentum.