When a series of bombings and cyber attacks hit Stockholm, the Swedish Secret Service, SÄPO, struggles to find the organisation responsible. Meanwhile, having just returned home after years of Navy SEAL training, Carl Hamilton rejoins SÄPO’s elite black-ops division while also being identified as a possible suspect.
Swedish 10-part drama Agent Hamilton follows the eponymous spy and agent Kristin Ek as they discover there are darker forces at work, with an organisation taking advantage of fake news, xenophobia and terrorism in order to turn a profit. As loyalties are put to the test, Hamilton is forced to choose what future is best for his country.
In this DQTV interview, star Jakob Oftebro, who plays Hamilton, and director Erik Leijonborg reveal how Jan Gillou’s literary agent was given a modern update for the series, which introduces viewers to the character by following him on his first mission.
Oftebro talks about how the series shows both the professional and personal aspects of his character, while Leijonborg discusses the filming techniques he used to play with the drama’s visual style.
Agent Hamilton is produced by Dramacorp Pampas Studios and Kärnfilm in coproduction with TV4, C-More, Beta Film and ZDF, in association with ZDF Enterprises.
Delve into the mind of Sigmund Freud as Austria’s ORF and Netflix partner for an eight-part series that sees the young doctor test out his unconventional theories while solving a murder conspiracy in 1890s Vienna.
Upon hearing the name Sigmund Freud, one might imagine a man with round, black-rimmed glasses and a neat, white beard, perhaps puffing on a cigar or sitting behind a desk, making notes while listening to a patient. For more than a century, the esteemed academic and neurologist, who founded the practice of psychoanalysis, has long influenced the medical world – and psychology and psychiatry in particular – with his theories on the unconscious, dreams, sexual behaviour and ego.
Now, 80 years after the doctor’s death, television viewers are to be given an insight into his early life in Freud, a thriller set against the backdrop of extravagant 1890s Vienna, famous for its decadence and the dark underbelly of its high society.
It’s a city where mysterious murders and political intrigue clash as the young psychoanalyst, played by Robert Finster, finds his revolutionary theories are met with strong opposition from his colleagues and wider Austrian society. But when he meets war veteran and policeman Alfred Kiss (Georg Freidrich) and notorious medium Fleur Salomé (Ella Rumpf), Freud unwittingly becomes part of an investigation into a murderous conspiracy.
The German-language series, coproduced by Austria’s ORF and global streamer Netflix, comes from writers Marvin Kren, who also directs, Benjamin Hessler and Stefan Brunner, all of whom were intrigued by the idea of placing a young Freud at the centre of a crime thriller.
“There’s this mysterious thing about Freud,” says Kren, who previously worked with Hessler on German gangster drama 4 Blocks. “I’m from Vienna; I was raised here and there’s no other city in Europe where Freud could have had his career because Vienna has a very strange culture and he’s a strange person.
“Viennese people are full of contrasts. They are funny and evil at the same time, and I think this is what kept Freud going in the search of the human soul, because of the Viennese soul. I was very interested to dig deep into Vienna at the end of the 19th century, to catch the atmosphere of this time.”
Acknowledging that Freud has now become something of a parody of himself – often being the subject of satirical cartoons or the source of sexual jokes – Hessler says the writers wanted to approach the psychoanalyst from a fresh perspective, presenting him as a hugely ambitious, revolutionary thinker at the start of his career.
“He was intensely conscious of himself, of the image he wanted to present to the world after [his death],” he says. “Even as a young man, he would imagine the house he was born in receiving a plaque saying ‘Freud was born here.’ He wanted to become a legend and he was very convinced he would. That’s an interesting character – but what was that character like before he achieved his goal?”
That Freud was hugely controlling over his image and perception might have proven to be a stumbling block to the writing team, as he destroyed all his work, letters and papers from the period on which the series focuses. But, in fact, this gave them some welcome creative freedom. So what was the young Freud actually like?
“Full of coke! He’s full of coke and not a person you want to trust,” says Kren. “He’s restless, he’s nervous, he’s full of instinct. He does everything to reach his goals but not because he is an egocentric person. He needs a position in Vienna because he doesn’t have a rich family behind him. That’s the person we start with – someone who fights for his ideas because he believes in them. And he needs people to believe in them to get recognition and money.”
Freud is just one part of the show, however. Other key figures include Fleur Salomé, a necromancer and medium who enjoys the fineries of Viennese high society. She brings to the series a discussion of the occult and how it might blend or clash with Freud’s ideas about the subconscious. Then there’s the crime story and the introduction of Kiss, who discovers various murders around the city.
A less imaginitive show might use the premise of a tired and weary police officer, struggling to crack the case, reluctantly turning to an unlikely figure and their controversial methods to solve the killings. But the Freud writers were keen to avoid this “pedestrian” scenario.
“In that case, the revolutionary aspect would lie in the character of Kiss, who would be progressive enough to ask this crazy doctor, who talks about the subconscious, for help. That’s not what we wanted to do,” Hessler explains. “In our series, Freud sees an opportunity to achieve fame and recognition. He uses the situation more than Kiss tries to use him to solve the cases, and then a whole other dynamic takes over and it turns into something very different.”
Early footage of the series – produced by Satel Film and Bavaria Fiction and distributed by ZDF Enterprises – suggests a haunting, horror-tinged quality to the drama, which the writers say blends a historic backdrop with very modern storytelling, music and camera movements. “The whole world has their clichéd images of our city and we take all those images and do a crazy horror show with it,” Kren says. “We’ve made a new cocktail.”
Central to the look of the show has been production designer Verena Wagner (Willkommen Österreich), who was able to make use of far more material detailing Vienna in the 1890s than the writers could to uncover Freud’s life in the same period.
“We found books that say Vienna was a very dark, rotten and dirty city and that brown was a very prominent colour – even houses were painted brown or dark grey,” she explains. “It must have been a completely different Vienna from the one we know now.”
Filming mostly took place in Prague, which doubled for Vienna, with the production team using the gothic Czech city’s castles and chateaus. Interiors, which were often exquisitely decorated, were built on sound stages, such as those for Freud’s flat and some of the larger Viennese homes.
“The time for sound stage usage was limited so we had to come up with ways for multiple uses of our sets,” Wagner says. “So Marvin and I talked about how people who lived in Vienna wanted to be individual but there was also a desire to be fashionable. They tried to be in with the crowd. So we took the first flat and just changed it a little bit each time for the others. We started with Freud’s flat, so there’s something of his home in every other flat. But if you watch the show, you will not recognise it. It’s in your subconscious!”
To write the series, Kren, Hessler and Brunner held several sessions together before splitting up to pen their individual episodes. Director Kren then left the writing group to begin pre-production.
“To call [having the director in the writers room] helpful would be underselling it,” Hessler says of Kren’s dual role. “The whole process relies on that. When we make up stuff together, I don’t think of Marvin as the director and potential enemy of the writer. He’s just my creative partner. Of course, his expertise and his knowledge of what is possible and what he wants to do is massively helpful and really guides the process.”
Kren also took the lead in discussions with ORF and Netflix, leaving the writers to be able to shape the series without interference. “Marvin is such a great creative partner because he knows my neurotic and sensitive writer’s soul and knows what to shield me from in the discussions he has and the limitations he’s fighting against,” Hessler adds.
While clashes between a public broadcaster in ORF and a global streaming platform such as Netflix might seem inevitable, Kren says both were extremely relaxed about the series, affording him “absolute creative freedom.” ORF’s intention to air Freud in primetime when it launches in Austria in the spring meant there were some discussions about the amount of sex and violence featured, and this will be reflected in slightly different edits for each. Netflix will then follow with its own worldwide roll-out.
As a director, Kren took some inspiration from his work on 4 Blocks, the German drama about a Lebanese crime family operating in Berlin that first aired on TNT Serie in 2017, taking an approach that allows him to work freely with the camera and the actors in a 360-degree setting.
“I don’t want to worry too much about lighting,” he jokes. “I just need the actors’ energy. I work with them for two months [before filming] with our acting coach, Giles Foreman, who has worked on five of my movies. He’s a big influence for me and my creative work and, with him, we develop all the important scenes and really dig deep into the heart of the characters and find combinations. We try to make ‘art explosions’ on the set.”
Kren also likes to work with new actors, something he has continued with Freud’s relatively unknown star Finster (My Brother’s Keeper). The director says Finster has brought a “certain dynamic” to the series, skilfully portraying both the light and dark shades of Freud’s complex personality. “It’s spectacular to watch,” he adds. “I’m very interested to see how people will react to him. He does a magnificent job.”
The eight-episode series was shot across 86 days, with production wrapping in June. Wagner says her job was made trickier by the language barrier she faced in the Czech Republic, though the toughest moment came on the final day of shooting, when torrential rain twice postponed filming.
“You could not do anything. We were really dependent on the weather and it was raining cats and dogs,” she says. “We were filming in a canal and the water was rising. You can’t do anything about it and you feel helpless. The rest of the time, the preparation was wild and we had a tough schedule, but it was all really good. When it ended, I was really sad. Everything was great and you forget the bad things very quickly.”
In the writers room, the biggest challenges came at the start of development, when the trio considered how to bring explanations of Freud’s scientific theories into the drama as seamlessly as possible, without either leaving the audience confused or filling the script with clunky paragraphs of exposition.
“The subconscious, the id and the superego are ideas most people are thinly aware of, but many people aren’t aware of them at all,” Hessler says.
“What had to be achieved in the first episode was to explain that to the audience and have them understand what Freud’s theory is and what about it was so groundbreaking at the time. You can have him explain it in Freudian terms, which is very difficult to follow and quite boring and dry. In the end, I found a metaphorical way for him to explain it, so I was very happy.
“Another thing that turned out to be very complicated was Freud’s family structure, which was incredibly strange. He was married to his own sister-in-law – his wife’s brother was married to Freud’s sister – which isn’t something you see everyday and was quite difficult to reveal to the audience without it being explanatory.”
However, it is those complicated family dynamics that ground the series away from the central crime stories. “The show is very tense and there are a lot of dark, creepy moments. When he’s together with his family, you can breathe a little,” Kren notes.
Freud and his theories are no strangers to television drama. Other historical crime series, such as US series The Alienist and British-made Vienna Blood, have similarly explored the use of his theories to profile and track criminals, while Poirot’s David Suchet portrayed the psychoanalyst in a 1984 six-part BBC biopic.
However, ORF and Netflix’s show is the first to imagine how a revolutionary young Freud might have been received when he first began to pitch his new ideas and how 1890s Vienna might have reacted to him.
It also stands out because, as Kren concludes, “it’s made by Austrians. We Austrians breathe Freud from the first moments we walk on the Viennese streets. It’s here; it’s in our genes.”
DQ lands in Stockholm to find a city-centre park taken over by filming for spy action thriller Agent Hamilton. The cast and creative team reveal their screen ambitions for Jan Guillou’s iconic literary character.
It’s lunchtime in Kungsträdgården, a tree-lined park in central Stockholm that is surrounded by outdoor cafés and lies in the shadow of the city’s opera house, close to the water that flows between the many islands that make up the Swedish capital.
On this bright summer’s day in August, it’s hard to see where the crowds of onlookers end and the extras filming 10-part Swedish action thriller Agent Hamilton begin. But once the cameras are rolling, it quickly becomes clear.
In a scene from the opening episode, Swedish interior minister Sissela Lindgren (played by Anna Sise) is giving a speech during the annual May Day protests when word spreads of a bomb going off a few blocks away. Urged to leave immediately, she stands by as her assistant races towards the politician’s car. It’s then that a second bomb detonates in the vehicle, leaving several dead and countless bystanders injured.
On set beside a large stage, dozens of extras are standing in their first positions, some holding bags and others grasping bright red balloons, their faces stiff with anticipation. Then when a crew member using a loudspeaker calls ‘Action,’ they all hurtle off in different directions, replicating the chaos and panic that spreads after a terrorist atrocity.
A small girl, her face covered in blood, sits next to her mother, who is lying motionless on the pavement. Other ‘victims’ lie in piles of shattered glass, their figures scattered around the smouldering remains of a black Volvo, its roof and bonnet ripped apart by the force of the blast.
As the panic continues, flashing lights from a number of arriving police cars appear in the distance. Then Jakob Oftebro, in character as Hamilton, slowly walks past the wreckage as the camera captures him surveying the devastation.
In all, more than 100 extras are involved in the set piece, with up to 200 in total filling this corner section of Kungsträdgården. In between takes, make-up artists are reapplying scars and wounds with tubes of fake blood.
Crew members are discussing whether one extra should continue to hold their balloon as they flee from the blast, while others are preparing to set an extra on fire as the camera pans around the still-burning car for a close-up on the minister cradling the body of her aide.
It’s a surreal and unsettling experience to be watching these events unfold, from the panic-stricken crowd’s screams (more will be added in post-production) to the sight of young children covered in blood and bodies lying motionless on the floor. As Oftebro tells DQ during a break in filming: “It’s horrifying, isn’t it?”
Agent Hamilton is based on Jan Guillou’s bestselling Carl Hamilton spy novels, which have become Sweden’s most iconic literary property since their debut in 1986. Though the books are set during the Cold War, the series brings the lead character into the present and plunges him in the middle of a “Cold War 2.0” between Russia and the US in the heart of Northern Europe.
Following a series of bombings and cyber attacks in Stockholm, the Swedish Secret Service, SÄPO, is struggling to find those responsible. Nobody knows Carl Hamilton has returned home and enlisted in SÄPO’s black-ops division following years of Navy SEAL training in the US, but after the attacks, he is identified as a possible suspect by agent Kristin Ek.
As they enter a cat-and-mouse chase to uncover the truth behind the attacks, they find darker forces at work, testing Hamilton’s loyalties to his country and exposing an organisation that is exploiting fake news, xenophobia and terrorism to turn a profit.
Starring alongside Oftebro (Below the Surface) are former Wallander duo Nina Zanjani and Krister Henriksson as Kristin and SÄPO boss DG respectively, plus Rowena King (Criminal Minds) and Jörgen Thorsson.
Executive producer Patrick Nebout (Midnight Sun) secured the rights to the Hamilton novels in 2016 after Guillou gave his blessing to a modern adaptation. The author created the character based on his knowledge of Swedish and international intelligence agencies, having spent a year in prison for espionage after helping to expose a covert spy group.
It’s not the first time Hamilton has been adapted for the screen, with Stellan Skarsgård and Peter Haber among those to have previously portrayed the character, who has been described as Sweden’s James Bond. But despite the flattering comparison, given 007’s lasting success on the big screen, Nebout says Hamilton is more like Jason Bourne if he were in Homeland, referring to the book-to-screen spy made famous by Matt Damon and US premium cablenet Showtime’s long-running espionage series.
“He’s very streetwise. He’s young. It’s closer to Homeland than a typical James Bond story, but you have all the same elements,” Nebout says of Hamilton. “We have action, we have a very character-driven story and we are in different locations. We are in Sweden, Russia, Germany and the Middle East. That’s where the Jason Bourne and James Bond comparisons can be made.
“There’s also a very realistic French show called Le Bureau des Légendes. We’re somewhere in the middle. We’re not completely in the naturalistic environment of Le Bureau des Légendes and we’re not in the heightened ‘fantasy’ world of James Bond.”
Inspired by movies from the 1970s including Three Days of the Condor and Marathon Man, Nebout says the aim from the outset was to create a very modern and ambitious Nordic spy thriller. Though as a result of setting the show in the present, little remains from the books except the main characters and the setup of Hamilton’s Navy SEAL training.
“The Hamilton movies were quite black and white in the sense that there were bad guys and good guys, but we wanted to be much more complex, especially now with the ‘Cold War’ situation. It’s a very blurry universe,” Nebout says. “The first season really brings something accurate and relevant to today’s world, in terms of how the corporate world can also have alliances with terrorists and how this mixes together.
“Then you have someone like Hamilton, who starts as someone very straightforward in his notions of good and bad but comes to understand he’s being used by people with a very different agenda. So it’s a journey of someone who starts off very idealistic in his views and starts peeling things back layer by layer until he understands that everything is not what he thought it was.”
Agent Hamilton is the latest Nordic drama to steer away from the popular noir detective shows that have become synonymous with the region. The series, produced by Dramacorp-Pampas Studios, also uses an authentic blend of languages depending on where the story moves, featuring Swedish, Russian and Arabic alongside English.
Behind the camera is conceptual director Erik Leijonborg, who has shown an ability to handle large-scale action on Netflix historical series The Last Kingdom and more intimate character drama with Tjockare än Vatten (Thicker Than Water).
“That’s such a lovely part of directing,” he says. “I can be with two extremely good actors doing a love scene and the next day I’m in Morocco shooting an action scene with special effects and stunts. The combination is so fun. The crucial part is telling a story but in different ways. If I have a big explosion in one of the major parks in Sweden, with a lot of tension and special effects, then we can have a scene afterwards where Hamilton’s just sitting on a bed.”
The director says a key part of the show is delving deep into the characters to ensure they drive the plot, not the other way around. “There’s more than solving the case and killing the enemy,” he says. “We also need to ask how to feel afterwards.
“I’m like a vampire – I need to live off the characters’ emotions and make them come alive. It’s fun and stimulating to film because it’s very modern, dramatic and emotional. We can have those heroic moments but I’m still totally grounded in realistic filmmaking. That’s the only thing I know; I don’t know anything else, so here I am challenged to do some more dramatic scenes. I call my shooting style ‘dramatic realism.’ It’s still very realistic but very dramatic.”
Leijonborg, who shares directing duties with Lisa Farzaneh and Per Hanefjord, also sat in on the writers room with head scribe Petter S Rosenlund (The Saboteurs), who was a fan of Guillou’s novels. Rosenlund says the biggest challenge in adapting them was coming to terms with the social and political changes in the 30-plus years since they were first published.
“It’s based on the conflict between the military and police in Guillou’s books – we have this conflict between the secret police and secret military agents,” says Rosenlund.
“When it comes to who is who and who’s dealing with what, then we have this conflict. So Kristin understands something is happening on the military side and that Hamilton belongs to this super-secret department, which is created by DG.”
Zanjani’s Kristin, a mother who must juggle the demands of her job with parenthood, is key to grounding the series. “She’s the one who tries to answer the question, ‘How does a Swedish agent fit into society?’ She will be the one trying to uncover Hamilton’s existence and put it into daylight,” the actor says of her character.
“The Swedish secret police can’t allow people to do some of the things he’s involved with. She’s the very skilled and smart police officer who starts to investigate some of the strange things that have been happening after the attack on Stockholm, so she tries to find who is behind it. [She and Hamilton] do the same thing, so they’re crossing each other.”
Zanjani hadn’t read any of the Hamilton books before accepting the role, which was created for the series. In any case, she believes “it’s better not to know [what happens in the books] because it makes you more free to find your character and make it your own,” she says. “But we all feel free in that sense. It’s the first time we’re doing it [in a contemporary setting], even though it existed before. It’s such a modern story so it makes us newly born.”
Meanwhile, Henriksson says he defined DG through the character’s relationship with Hamilton, whom he describes as being like the son DG never had. “That is a big problem. It makes relations very complicated – it’s love, it’s hate, it’s respect,” he notes.
The actor says he was inspired to join the series as Hamilton is an “iconic figure” in Sweden, much like Wallander, the fellow literary character Henriksson played on screen in more than 30 feature-length episodes over eight years until 2013. “Not everyone in Sweden has read the books but they think they know who he is,” he adds. “That’s why I’m here.”
Despite working in multiple languages in places around the world, Nebout says discussions around Agent Hamilton have always focused on the story to ensure the series has both the depth of character and complexity of plot to satisfy audiences. “That should be the focus for all producers and series,” he says. “It’s really about the script, the characters and being able to relate to those characters. Even if you hate Hamilton, it’s also about relating to him on the macro level and micro level.”
The series will debut on Scandi streamer C More before airing in Sweden on TV4. Germany’s ZDF, in association with ZDF Enterprises, is a coproducer alongside distributor Beta Film, which has already placed the series with Norway’s TV2, Denmark’s DR and Finland’s MTV3.
Having secured a two-season commitment for the show upfront, Nebout says plans are already underway for the next stage of the story. Combining impressive scale and spectacle with complex, modern-day themes, Agent Hamilton looks set to breathe new life into Guillou’s character and create an iconic spy for a new generation.
Carl Hamilton has featured in more than a dozen literary outings and several screen adaptations. But much like Daniel Craig’s first outing as James Bond in 2006’s Casino Royale, this new series takes the eponymous spy right back to the beginning, following him on his first mission.
In Agent Hamilton, little remains of Jan Guillou’s Cold War-set novels except the leading character, with the series opening just as the spy returns home to Sweden after completing training in the US with the Navy SEALs.
“He’s an activist, politically active, military trained and very capable of doing different stuff, technologically, intellectually and physically,” actor Jakob Oftebro (right) says of his character. “So he’s definitely different. He’s not that into gadgets or expensive cars. The series asks how you can be a secret agent and how it works to be in the military in a country that has traditionally been neutral. It’s super interesting to try to get into that psyche and find the righteousness in being a secret agent in Sweden nowadays.”
Oftebro’s preparation involved talking with current and former military veterans, secret agents, Navy SEALs and bodyguards, as well as plenty of physical training. But the star’s primary focus has been on finding Hamilton’s humanity, aided by speaking to people about how this kind of job can affect your life and mental health.
“I’m trying to find the human in the character and being a special agent, not only seeing someone as super cool doing super-intelligent stuff,” he explains. “We’re starting this story days after he arrives back home, so I’m trying to imagine being born in Stockholm and then leaving to train at the Navy SEAL academy and then coming back to Stockholm to be a secret agent. It’s quite a difficult job. Stockholm is not the biggest city in the world – obviously you would know people, so how does it work? How do you infiltrate? And how do you work as a secret agent in the city where you were born and raised?
“I think a lot of people can relate to that, if you’ve studied abroad or lived abroad and then returned. It’s always strange. You will eventually meet the teenage version of yourself or the child or have old memories. But you have to break loose from that and think, ‘I’m a secret agent now.’ It’s also difficult in a country that is so pacifistic and against war.”
After an on-set injury earlier this year that put production on hold, Oftebro recovered to take his place in front of the camera, which he says has been a huge honour.
“I have a dramatic background so after doing a couple of the action scenes, it’s nice to have a scene where you can see that he’s a human being and not a machine,” he continues. “The most fun has been when Hamilton and Kristin [Nina Zanjani] finally sit down together and the conflict comes to the surface. Everybody’s just human. Otherwise, you’re a psychopath. What’s interesting is the question of whether Hamilton is a psychopath. I really enjoy the character. I love doing this.”
Acorn TV’s London Kills will quench audience thirst for the kind of episodic, procedural storytelling that is now overshadowed by long-running serialised dramas, claim writers Paul Marquess and Sarah-Louise Hawkins plus Robert Franke of distributor ZDF Enterprises.
The rise of streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video has, in part, been responsible for television series shifting away from episodic procedural storytelling towards long-running serialised dramas. Stories no longer have to wrap up within a single episode, offering writers, directors and actors the chance to take a deep dive across 10 to 13 hours.
Yet one online platform, US streamer Acorn TV, is bucking the trend with London Kills, its second original programme and first straight-to-series commission. Acorn has ordered two five-part seasons of the British show, which dramatises the experiences of a team of top murder detectives in London, focusing on a different murder in each episode while also featuring a serialised story involving the lead detective’s missing wife.
“There’s a substantial international appetite for English-speaking crime procedurals that isn’t being catered to by the UK broadcasters. Straightforward murder-of-the-week doesn’t get commissioned anymore for various reasons,” says London Kills creator and head writer Paul Marquess, who was also responsible for Channel 5’s improvised crime drama Suspects. Acorn had bought Suspects to the US and, knowing the interest in procedural crime dramas among the platform’s Anglophile audience, Marquess pitched the streamer the idea for London Kills.
“I’ve had the title for a long time – I’ve known what the show was,” he says. “I’ve wanted to do a murder procedural in London for a long time, I like murder procedurals, I wanted to shoot in London and shoot as much of the city as I could, and so the whole thing came together. Obviously I’ve made a few cop shows in the past [such as The Bill, Crime Stories and MIT: Murder Investigation Team] but it felt like the one I wanted to make now. And they really liked it.”
With European broadcasters also in need of episodic dramas, Acorn partnered with German distributor ZDF Enterprises (ZDFE) to finance the series, a decision ZDFE’s head of drama Robert Franke called “a no-brainer.”
“There is a demand for English-speaking crime procedurals and we’re having problems procuring these types of programmes internationally. What we said was instead of having to run around trying to find additional coproduction money, we come in and match the Acorn investment and all of a sudden we have a greenlight,” Franke recalls. “That was important because we wanted London Kills as fast as possible. It was just like all the stars aligned.”
With the commission announced in March 2018, filming began in June and the series was subsequently launched to potential international buyers with a premiere screening at C21 Media’s Content London last November. Less than 12 months on from its order, London Kills launches in the US on Acorn TV today.
“What I hear when I talk to our buyers is they say they’re looking for something that is low commitment for the viewer,” Franke says of ZDFE’s decision to back the series. “Horizontal storylines mean viewers are committed for the whole show. What we see is a lot of people like to have something they can enjoy for an episode or two, and that’s exactly what a crime procedural provides. There has been a misconception in the market about what kind of buyers are actually buying these shows. They haven’t gone away.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Marquess, who compares the current situation to a period when he worked at global production giant Fremantle and many people believed talent shows were on the wane. That, he remembers, was not long before Pop Idol first aired in the UK in 2001, with the show going on to reinvent television singing competitions around the world.
“I’ve been in television long enough to see things come and go. People really like crime-of-the-week shows and the thing about London Kills is it’s also a serial story,” he explains. “That element is low in the mix compared to other [serialised] shows, but it’s there and it connects you with the detectives. But the show does give you that weekly satisfaction that a lot of the audience really like. Anecdotally, I’m finding more and more people are saying to me they would like a beginning, middle and an end. These shows are not particularly sexy or fashionable but it doesn’t mean they’re not good and the audience doesn’t like them.”
London Kills, a coproduction between Acorn Media Enterprises and Marquess’s PGMTV, saw the creator bring together Sarah-Louise Hawkins, Sally Tatchell and Jake Riddell to write the series, after he had written the pilot.
Having worked with Marquess on Suspects, Hawkins says she found the pilot script “absolutely compelling” and quickly began pitching potential cases to feature as the ‘story of the week’ in the writers room.
Marquess says his background in soap operas such as Coronation Street means he prefers a collaborative writing process. “I write very reluctantly. Lots of people are better writers than I am, and a problem it would take me a day to solve on my own in my office, I can solve in two minutes in a room with some good writers,” he notes.
“It was a totally crucial part of the process and it pays off in spades. The more you bring the writers into the room, the more you sit and talk together, you all know what you’re doing. Twenty years ago, I went to LA and sat in some writers rooms there and have never looked back.”
Episode one begins with the discovery of a body hanging from a tree in a park overlooking the city, while another story, penned by Hawkins, opens with a corpse found underneath a garden patio. “It turns out three years ago it was buried when it was a student house, and the detectives then unpick what happened,” she says. “Some people start with the death first, but I find if you find some kind of emotional hook, that’s the thing I have first and everything else comes after that. Also, when you’re able to work with complete freedom and someone allows you the latitude to work that way, you can see how it ends up as such an enjoyable experience,” she says of working with Marquess.
Marquess notes that these days, most television detectives are “dead, reincarnated or wearing an interesting hat. Everything has to be really quirky.” The team at the heart of London Kills – played by Hugo Speer (Britannia), Sharon Small (Mistresses), Bailey Patrick (Bodyguard) and Tori Allen-Martin (Unforgotten) – are decidedly lacking in fancy headgear, nor do they have any recent deaths to overcome. That’s why he says London Kills is a series that simply lives up to its title.
“It’s not wildly quirky. All the detectives are actually alive. There is, I hope, a very compelling serial story kicking along underneath it,” he says. “Ultimately, I hope it reflects my fascination with the real versions of what detectives do. And we all love a good murder mystery. It doesn’t have to be dressed up in Agatha Christie clothes. There isn’t, to my mind, an equivalent UK murder-of-the-week series being shot at the moment that’s just that, and that is OK. People really like that.”
Marquess likes his productions to be shot hard and fast, with a single episode filmed in five days via three cameras operating at once. “I took this idea to Hugo, thinking, ‘You’re not going to want to do this.’ But Hugo loved it. He said it was like acting on the stage because the directors and actors work together, put it on its feet, we shoot it with three cameras and then we move on. It’s bloody exciting actually. I am famously impatient. I still think it’s slow! But compared to everything else, it’s an express train.”
Shooting this way offers “huge dividends,” Marquess says, including the fact actors are spared from continuous retakes. There is still that safety net of redoing a scene if it doesn’t work first time around, but otherwise the team can move swiftly on.
“We’re able to do it because the cameras are small and lightweight,” Marquess adds. “We don’t have to light it because they’re really light-sensitive. I couldn’t have done this 20 years ago but now I can. The edit is also less stressful now and more limber so you can make it work. I love it. I’m pitching shows that are bigger budget but, if I could, I’d shoot everything like this because you end up with much more electricity and energy.”
The remarkably long heatwave enjoyed by the UK last summer took its toll on the crew during filming. Marquess admits it makes the series simmer on screen, though the finished product stands in contrast to the rain-soaked London he had envisioned when he wrote the pilot. The 10-week production schedule, as opposed to the more common 30 weeks, also meant making the show was incredibly tough, but that the crew could see the finish line from the start.
“We shoot five days a week, not six or seven, so the actors get two days off to recover and learn what’s next,” he says of the schedule. “As a process, I think it works really well. We had a great building in Whitechapel where we had our production offices and our set. In each episode there’s something iconic of London, but we also shot around the East End, which is a great area to shoot in.”
From an international perspective, Franke adds that London Kills is very much in tune with what ZDFE believes is missing from the UK. “We were happy Paul was able to do something [financially] competitive with a great story that looks good. It is a show that delivers. It’s not gimmicky. It’s very straightforward and it just gives the people what they want to see.”
German writer Annette Hess tells DQ about period drama Ku’damm 56 and its upcoming sequel Ku’damm 59, her desire to create a series with strong female characters and why she enjoys writing about the past.
The origins of German period drama Ku’damm 56 make for an interesting play on the progression of writers within the country’s television industry. Annette Hess, who had created long-running series Weissensee, was demoralised at the lack of control she had over her own show. So for her next project, she carved out a role as a showrunner that meant she could be hands-on with the programne throughout its development and production.
Ku’damm 56, about three sisters finding their way in 1950s Berlin while under the watchful eye of their strict, socially conservative mother, first aired on ZDF in March 2016. Shown over three nights, it was watched by an average of six million people. Its sequel, Ku’damm 59, will debut on March 18 this year.
“Ku’damm 56 was the first time I was involved as a kind of showrunner,” Hess tells DQ. “It was on Weissensee that I did not have enough influence to give my opinion, and I didn’t like that very much. I was outside and it was always the director who was the last one to decide. I told my agent I wanted to have it another way next time.
“There’s a lot of work still to do, of course, because a lot of directors don’t like this development. But it had to be done because I know so many talented writers and they’re so frustrated after years [in television] and they’re going into literature. I also started [writing literature] myself and now I have to write a book!”
Ku’damm 56 tells a story of conflicting generations through Berlin dance school owner Caterina Schöllack (Claudia Michelsen) and her three daughters Monika (Sonja Gerhardt), Helga (Maria Ehrich) and Eva (Emilia Schüle). While Helga and Eva are willing to follow their mother’s wish to see them happily married, Monika rebels against her strict upbringing and falls in love with rock ’n’ roll music.
Hess puts the success of Ku’damm 56 down to the music and dancing at the centre of the coming-of-age story. “It’s one you can understand immediately if you have problems with your mother, even if your mother isn’t such a monster as Caterina.
“Older people were interested because it was about their youth. It was the youth of my parents, which is why I wrote it, because my mother told me lots of stories about her girlfriend, and these girls – Helga, Monika and Eva – are kind of real. And the younger ones are also interested to see where their mothers and grandmothers come from and how they lived.”
Set three years later, the sequel sees single mother Monika fight for custody of her daughter, as Caterina believes the little girl should live with Helga and her husband Wolfgang (August Wittgenstein), as a way to hide his secret homosexuality. Meanwhile, the careers of Monika and her dance partner Freddy (Trystan Pütter) pick up speed under the stewardship of Caterina’s management, while Monika must also confront her feelings for Joachim (Sabin Tambrea). Eva is also unhappy in her marriage to Professor Fassbender (Heino Ferch).
Like its predecessor, Ku’damm 59 is produced by UFA Fiction and distributed by ZDF Enterprises.
“We always had [a sequel] in mind if it was a success,” Hess admits. “You’re thinking about it in your meetings with the broadcaster and talking about what you could do. For me, it’s always difficult, if it’s a success, to make it even better. Of course, everyone’s expecting it to be better than Ku’damm 56. I told my husband, ‘What can I write?’ It was a long process. But on the other hand, I love to write characters and tell their lives. Now it’s even better than Ku’damm 56.
“I’m so overwhelmed by what I see [on set]. The actors are much more in their characters, the director is much more free this time and the stories are grown-up stories. Ku’damm 56 was more like a fairytale; Monika was an ugly duck who became a swan. Now they’re struggling and have conflicts with each other and their husbands and their mother. It’s not a coming-of-age story but really a drama, and with a lot of humour too.”
Taking to social media, Hess says she enjoyed hearing from viewers who were willing Monika and potential love interest Joachim to marry. Monika rejected Joachim in Ku’damm 56 but he returns in the sequel.
“There are a lot of fans asking for marriage and happy endings between him and Monika so it’s wonderful to see all these Facebook posts,” the writer says. “It’s quite new that the writer has direct reaction to what you have written. They said after the first part it has to go on, they have to marry and I’m giving the fans this marriage but not in the way they are expecting. I really like to listen to viewers and fans and to react and give them more, but not in the way they are expecting.”
Ten years ago, Hess wrote a series called Die Frau vom Checkpoint Charlie (The Woman from Checkpoint Charlie), a TV movie for Arte based on the true story of a woman who is separated from her children while escaping 1980s East Germany. While it was a big success, Hess says she is now far removed from this “simple” kind of story that was made at a time when something like Ku’damm, with a cast of complex characters, would not have been produced. Now she’s fighting to bring more complicated females to the screen.
“Female movies are the more soapy movies and the others are crime stories, mostly with strong men, and women are prostitutes or drug addicts,” she says of the German industry. “I’m exaggerating but it’s a big issue for me because it’s a real problem. It’s a kind of regression. You can see it in the directors – 20% of directors are female, the same with writers, and these 20% are writing mostly the soapy stuff while men are writing the interesting projects. It’s not moving, so for me it’s now very important.
“In other series, women are just ornaments or they try to make one strong woman so nobody can say there isn’t one. It’s ridiculous sometimes. But they’re not really the sort of female characters I want to see. Orange is the New Black and The Crown are great series with fascinating female characters.”
Future series from Hess are likely to continue to live in the past, as per Weissensee and the Ku’damm shows. She’s now also writing an adaptation of Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo (The Children from Bahnhof Zoo), an autobiographical book by Christiane F, who Hess describes as “the most famous drug addict in the world.” The series is set in Berlin in the 1970s.
“For me, it’s easier to tell stories from a distance,” she says. “If I’m writing about my everyday life, I cannot choose what is important – I think everything is important. But if I have some distance, I can decide what is the essential story, what are the essential characters, and that’s the story I’m going to tell. But whether it’s in the 1950s or 1970s, it’s also about today because the conflicts are the same. It has to be a mirror of our time, otherwise it wouldn’t work with the audience. It’s just like something from a museum.”
Whether there will be a third instalment in the Ku’damm series set in 1962 remains to be seen, as Hess would have to deal with the Berlin Wall, which was built a year earlier. “I don’t like to write these things,” she adds. “We have seen it so many times, it’s not easy to find a new idea about it.”
Tuvalu Entertainment and ZDF Enterprises this week announced they had joined forces for supernatural thriller One Bad Apple, in which the Devil seeks to return to Earth and reunite with his teenage daughter. DQ spoke to the creative team behind the series about their ambitions for this female-led drama.
Gripping action and daring adventure will meet supernatural thrills and teen drama in a new female-led series currently in development.
One Bad Apple takes inspiration from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Clueless, Riverdale, The Omen and Indiana Jones to tell the story of a teenage girl struggling to come to terms with her own identity and the truth behind her parentage, all while she navigates the corridors of an elite school.
The series comes from a partnership between UK producer Tuvalu Entertainment and distributor ZDF Enterprises (ZDFE), with father-daughter writing team Gavin and Rebecca Scott also on board.
Broadcasters are now being sounded out to join the production, following a private screening held by ZDFE for potential buyers at Content London in November 2017.
The story centres on Mercy Emerson, the spoilt teenage daughter of world-famous lifestyle guru Gwyneth Emerson. But unknown to everyone except her mother, Mercy’s father happens to be the Devil.
After enrolling at a respectable boarding school set in the southern England countryside, Mercy begins to take control of the school and the nearby town. The school’s location is also significant, being close to the burial site of the Holy Grail, a powerful artefact hidden long ago after Satan’s last defeat and preventing him from returning to Earth. Mercy must find it and destroy it so her father can regain his power.
“We created the idea for One Bad Apple after we thought it would be a good to have a strong British female drama,” says Tuvalu executive producer Paul Johnson, who compares Mercy to a female Darth Vader. “I loved the feeling of her coming to terms with being a woman while comprehending how to control the minds of other people and control the world.”
German distributor ZDFE is well known for its slate of compelling crime drama, including Scandinavian series such as Forbrydelsen (The Killing) that kick-started the boom for Nordic fiction a decade ago. And now head of drama Robert Franke has identified a gap in the market that One Bad Apple can fill.
“What’s an underserved genre? Something made for the female audience,” he says. “We wanted to find a project that could take this on. Paul had this and I knew it was something special. It was perfect for what we were trying to do as a distributor. We took it from there, we funded development and then Paul found Gavin and Rebecca.”
Johnson looked at 30 different writers and interviewed 10 before the Scotts signed up. “Their ideas, chemistry and eye for captivating story ideas came out and I was hooked,” he explains. “Then I went out to LA in March last year and brainstormed with them and a story editor. We put together the story arc and episode structure and began the narrative journey.”
A month later, Gavin and Rebecca landed in the UK to explore the Sussex countryside, castles, mysterious grounds and ancient churches and take in the spirit of One Bad Apple’s setting. Two episodes have now been written, with storylines for 18 episodes also completed.
“It’s a universal process about discovering who you really are,” Gavin Scott says of the show’s central premise. “That’s what the two female protagonists are doing in the most special way. Mercy has discovered she’s the devil’s daughter, it’s quite a big deal. That’s a parallel for the process of self-discovery. Lydia, the antagonist, has to prevent the devil from coming back. She’s also in the process of finding who she is and how to fulfil that role.
“Paul came up with a brilliant concept but I like to know the complete logic behind it. Something in the cosmos wants to come back to Earth, but something is preventing it and the daughter is the means to do it – that was something we had to brainstorm. We worked it out together.”
Rebecca Scott picks up: “We just took Paul’s great concept and, being father and daughter, having that relationship already, we jumped on it. We got to create our own world. It was limitless and fun and we just bounced ideas. It came really quickly.”
Speaking about the pair’s writing process, Rebecca says it was a case of building a partnership as the project grew. “The first episode we wrote entirely together,” she says. “For the second episode, we wrote different acts and then swapped them. We created everything together and then physically swapped our work in progress.
Gavin, who has worked on series The Young Indiana Chronicles and hit movie Small Soldiers, continues: “This is not just two writers coming together, it’s two generations. It’s a fantastic resource to draw on. I’ve been watching TV since the 1950s, while Rebecca is of the generation that’s making content right now. When we’re brainstorming, having two generations gives us an enormous amount of richness.”
The announcement of One Bad Apple also comes in the wake of the sexual misconduct scandal engulfing Hollywood, and the subsequent Time’s Up and #MeToo campaigns. Rebecca, whose writing, directing and production design credits include Blood Relatives and Murder Among Friends, says she has seen manifold changes across the business in the past year.
“I’ve been a writer-director under the radar,” she explains. “I’ve had to knock on some doors myself but no one was giving me a chance. Now I’ve been working on Goliath, 911 and Scandal. I directed 10 hours last year. I don’t think I would have been able to say that a year ago. Things are changing in the most wonderful way. It’s reflected in projects like this.”
Johnson picks up: “It feels like the timing could not be better for a drama just like One Bad Apple. We certainly weren’t thinking about [the current industry climate] at the genesis of the project but we are happy that women in the entertainment industry [are being heard] and their time has come.
“We have strong female leads and characters throughout. We also have an incredibly talented female writer-director in Rebecca and we think One Bad Apple is a very good example of drama empowering women all over the world.”
With the search for a broadcast partner well underway, Johnson is optimistic that production could begin as early as this autumn, with One Bad Apple debuting at some point in 2019. A few roles have already been cast, with Johnson revealing some are “household names in the UK.” Other parts will be open to non-British actors, owing to the international mix of students and teachers at Mercy’s boarding school.
“We want to make a thrilling drama,” Gavin concludes. “Hopefully this is a thrilling and exciting, eye-opening drama. Once we set it in the English countryside, there’s also a thought there should be an element of wry humour. That shouldn’t be the heart of it. It’s a supernatural psychological thriller.”
Johnson concludes: “Mercy controls people’s minds, which doesn’t require too many special effects. This story is real life, looking at everyday people. There are not a lot of explosions – it’s a grounded drama that’s supernatural in theme but not in nature.”
What do you do if you can’t trust anyone, least of all yourself?
That’s the dilemma at the heart of Tabula Rasa, a nine-part drama about a young woman with amnesia who is locked up in a secure psychiatric hospital. A police officer believes she was the last person to see a man before he vanished, and won’t allow her release until he is found.
In order to solve the puzzle, Mie has to reconstruct her lost memories and find her way back through the dark labyrinth of her recent past. The more she remembers, the more she starts to distrust not only the people around her, but also herself.
Showrunner Malin-Sarah Gozin and actor Veerle Baetens, who is also among the series’ writers, reveal the origins of the story and talk about how the show was developed.
Gozin also talks about her role on the Flemish-language show, why viewers are drawn to stories featuring unreliable narrators and plans to turn Tabula Rasa in to an anthology series.
Tabula Rasa is produced by Caviar for VRT-owned Één and distributed by ZDF Enterprises.
Italian drama Maltese follows Commissario Maltese as he seeks the truth in a world full of corruption – only to put his life at risk when a murder investigation leads him to uncover a network of criminals and assassins working alongside powerful and untouchable citizens, including government officials.
German actor Rike Schmid co-stars as a newspaper photographer who also endangers herself with her attempts to make the Mafia visible through her work.
In this DQ interview, she reveals more about her character and discusses the challenges of learning Italian for the role and how that affected her approach to acting.
Maltese is produced by Palomar for Italian broadcaster Rai and distributed by ZDF Enterprises.
There’s a strong international flavour to drama commissioning this week, with plenty of action in terms of format deals, coproductions, acquisitions and plans for movie adaptations.
FremantleMedia, for example, has just announced that its Australian prison drama Wentworth is being remade in Flemish for Belgium-based commercial broadcaster. With a working title of Gent-West, the new 10-part drama will be coproduced by FremantleMedia Belgium and Marmalade Productions. Although the show doesn’t debut on Vier until 2018, it will be shown prior to that on Telenet’s paid cable channels Play and Play More.
Stefan De Keyser, MD of FremantleMedia Belgium, called Wentworth “an explosive drama filled with twists and emotion. Its suspenseful storylines and powerful female cast are sure to captivate Flemish audiences and we hope that Vier’s commission will build on the worldwide success of this scripted property.”
The Flemish version of the show will be the third adaptation following Celblok H (Netherlands) and Block B – Unter Arrest (Germany). Wentworth is also popular in its original form: to date, the show has aired in 141 countries worldwide and is still going strong on home soil after four series on SoHo.
FremantleMedia also revealed this week that the new Ukranian version of its New Zealand soap Shortland Street has started well. Known locally as Central Hospital, the 60-part drama is currently airing on channel 1+1 and is Ukraine’s number-one show. Central Hospital has also been sold on in its completed form to Georgia and Kazakhstan. Following the success of the show, Anne Kirsipuu, format sales director for CIS, Ukraine, Georgia and the Baltic States at FM, said: “We’re looking forward to introducing more local adaptations (of other FM shows) soon.”
Elsewhere in Europe, producer/distributor Beta Film has secured the rights for Light of Elna, a Nazi-refugee drama directed by Sílvia Quer (Velvet, Grand Hotel). The Spanish-Swiss coproduction tells the story of Swiss teacher Elisabeth Eidenbenz, who created a maternity home for female WW2 refugees about to give birth. Beta Film will serve as the worldwide distributor, having previously sold Spanish dramas Velvet & Grand Hotel worldwide.
Scandinavian crime drama continues to prove its appeal worldwide. This week, Germany’s ZDF Enterprises (a big supporter of Nordic Noir) licensed the third season of Bron (The Bridge) to Japan’s Tohokushinsha Film Corp. Under the terms of the deal, TFC gets VoD and DVD rights in addition to television rights. ZDFE and TFC have a longstanding relationship that has already seen deals for the first three seasons of The Killing and the first two of Bron. The latter has been a hit worldwide, selling in its completed form to 140 countries and being adapted in the US and UK/France.
Continuing with our globetrotting, there are also reports that leading Argentinian broadcaster Telefe has signed a deal with Diego Maradona to make a drama about the iconic footballer’s life. There is certainly plenty of on-field and off-field action to fill a series – as Maradona noted in a modestly worded statement: “Every month of my life has enough for someone to write 100 chapters. Everything that I lived exceeds any fiction. I’m happy and excited that Telefe is developing this project for the world.”
Telefe contents and international business director Tomas Yankelevich added an equally measured summation: “This is an incredible challenge as a producer to think about turning into fiction the life of the best soccer player of all time, and probably the most famous person in the world. We think of an unprecedented super-production, and are looking for partners to join us. We expect to make a global show without borders.”
Notwithstanding the hype, Telefe is undoubtedly the right company to lead the project. Owned by Telefonica, it is one of the major producer/broadcasters in Latin America with activities that stretch across film and TV. Recent productions include Story of a Clan, Educating Nina and coproduction The Return of Lucas.
In the US, meanwhile, there’s some interesting news for sci-fi fans. Roddenberry Entertainment, the company set up by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry (who died in 1991), has created a project called Holoscape that has been optioned by Storyoscopic Films. Holoscape is set in the aftermath of World War III and the collapse of civilisation. Using a mysterious device from the war (the Holoscape), a group of survivors discovers they are part of a conspiracy that has shaped the destiny of humankind, but are given the chance to escape their present and save our future.
“Storyoscopic holds a unique place in the industry due to its strong ties to China and the international market,” said Trevor Roth, head of development for Roddenberry Entertainment. “That, along with its sense for strong properties and compelling stories, makes it a perfect collaborator for Holoscape.”
Also this week, US network Fox gave a put-pilot commitment to a Marvel action-adventure series that will tap into the latter’s rapidly-expanding X-Men universe. The pilot will focus on two ordinary parents who discover their children possess mutant powers. Matt Nix (Burn Notice) will write the script and executive produce alongside a bunch of X-Men and Marvel executives.
“Developing a Marvel property has been a top priority for the network, and we are so pleased with how Matt Nix has led us into this thrilling universe,” said Fox Entertainment president David Madden. “There’s comic book adventure, emotional and complicated relationships and a rich, existing mythology from which to draw. With the brilliant production crew behind this project, it has all the makings of a big, fun and exciting series.”
Other interesting deals this week include a Netflix order for a Chuck Lorre (The Big Bang Theory) comedy called Disjointed and a development deal between Endemol Shine Studios and acclaimed film maker Guy Ritchie, who will develop scripted series for the company. There are also reports that YouTube is talking to UK content creators about original content for its SVoD service YouTube Red.
Tabula Rasa producer Helen Perquy tells Michael Pickard about the show’s journey from Series Mania pitch to fully-fledged series ahead of its launch on VRT next year.
When the producer of forthcoming Flemish drama Tabula Rasa takes to the stage at Series Mania today, it will mark the completion of a two-year journey.
The psychological thriller was first pitched to industry executives at the annual Paris event in 2014, as part of the European Coproduction Forum.
Now the project has come full circle, with audiences inside the Forem des Images given the chance to see the first images from the series, which will make its debut on Belgian public broadcaster VRT in 2017.
Tabula Rasa tells the story of Mie, a young woman who is locked up in a secure psychiatric hospital. She is visited by Detective Inspector Wolkers, who is trying to solve a disturbing missing persons case when it transpires Mie was the last person to be seen with Thomas Spectre before he vanished.
It appears to be a cut-and-dry case for the experienced DI Wolkers – except his only witness is a woman suffering from acute memory loss. In order to solve the puzzle and find Thomas, Mie has to reconstruct her lost memories and find her way back through the dark labyrinth of her past.
Produced by Brussels-based Caviar, Tabula Rasa landed at Series Mania in 2014 on the basis of its script, which was written by Malin-Sarah Gozin (Clan).
The writing team was completed by Christophe Dirickx and Veerle Baetens – who is also the lead actress on the series. The rest of the main cast comprises Stijn Van Opstal, Jeroen Perceval, Gene Bervoets, Natali Broods, Hilde Van Mieghem, Peter Van Den Begin, François Beukelaers, Lynn Van Royen and Tom Audenaert. Jonas Govaerts and Kaat Beels are the directors.
“Tabula Rasa is a very human story,” producer Helen Perquy explains ahead of appearing on stage at Series Mania. “It’s a psychological thriller with an unreliable narrator. What Malin always says is it’s like a mind-fuck – and she’s right. As Mie goes through psychosis, she doubts everyone and it’s a bit of a whodunit, but you also question whether she did it herself. You doubt everyone, even yourself, and you feel that tension all the time.
“Sometimes it flirts with horror, but you also have some very recognisable family scenes where you see the love between a family as well as how family can be disruptive. Mie’s memory loss is also reflected in the dementia of her father. There are a lot of very recognisable themes. It’s not an easy story but it should be very captivating, powerful and emotional.”
Perquy says she wanted the series to be challenging for audiences: “The best series make you think and get involved, and this is definitely one of those series. You never know if it’s going to be a success, but all the ingredients are there.”
Broadcaster VRT, which has signed on to the series alongside distributor ZDF Enterprises, will certainly be hoping those ingredients have been blended successfully – as will ZDF Neo in Germany, which will also air the drama next year.
But Perquy, whose credits include Eén series Quiz Me Quick, says Tabula Rasa represents a leap of faith for the Belgian broadcaster – one that sees it follow in the footsteps of several other European networks of late that have shown signs of more risk-taking in this on-demand age as they battle to stand out on the increasingly crowded EPG.
“This is a stretch for them,” she says of VRT. “I know them very well and I went to them because I wanted to have freedom for the authors, the directors and the whole process. But it is a stretch in the sense they haven’t done anything that remotely flirts with horror. Even psychological thriller isn’t a genre that has been presented to the public before.
“It’s really going to be a mind-fuck. It’s really scary sometimes; it’s also very emotional and a little weird.”
The producer says television must continue to take risks in storytelling if it hopes to avoid the problems facing the movie business, whose output Perquy believes has become formulaic and stale.
“We have a lot of talent in Belgium but we always keep telling the same Flemish stories,” she says. “Tabula Rasa is not a Flemish story – it’s a Flemish story as much as it is a British story, a German story or a Scandinavian story. We should, from time to time, not give the audience what they expect. If you don’t do that, things like True Detective don’t happen, but it’s not an easy road for the audience.
“Film studios are using a formula by finding what they think works – such as helicopters, boobs and everything that goes fast – and putting it all in the same movie to make a hit. If you do that over a short period of time, you’ll get an audience; if you do it long term, you’re dead. Movies are going down, but series are going up because the authors make them complicated, they get good actors because they know there’s flesh on the plate. We should do that in Belgium as well.”
Two years after its first pitch, guests at Series Mania will now see the first clips from Tabula Rasa. Projects being presented at this year’s European Coproduction Forum – including Warrior (Miso Film, Denmark), Flight 1618 (MakingProd, France) and The Illegal (Conquering Lion Pictures, Canada) – will hope to replicate its success.
Like a plot from Doctor Who, Scandinavian crime drama The Bridge has regenerated for its third season without its leading man. Michael Pickard hears how the cast and crew overcame this change to keep the hit series on track.
For fans of Bron/Broen – aka The Bridge – the relationship between leading characters Saga Norén and Martin Rohde has been the centrepiece of the compelling crime drama.
But after Kim Bodnia, who plays Danish detective Rohde, announced he was leaving the series after season two, the cast and crew faced the dilemma of whether they should replace him – and, if so, how they could do it.
And while everyone on the Danish/Swedish coproduction was forced to deal with the emotional impact of Bodnia’s decision, there was also the practical issue of writing out the show’s leading man.
“Kim Bodnia decided to leave the show in April or May and we were shooting in September and had already done the first four scripts with a storyline with him still in it,” explains series creator and writer Hans Rosenfeldt, who is currently working on his first UK series, Marcella, for ITV.
“That was a huge problem for us. But it forced us to think about what The Bridge could be without Saga and Martin. It gave us really good energy and a feeling that we could use it as a chance to see what new situations we could put Saga in and what a new could partner give her that Martin didn’t, as well as seeing other sides of her and a new relationship.”
To ensure Saga’s new partner, Henrik Saboe (played by Thure Lindhardt), wasn’t immediately compared to Martin, the show’s creators decided to delay introducing him until the second episode – a tactic Rosenfeldt describes as “a blessing in disguise.”
“We got a lot of good things out of it,” he continues. “We’d already planned the third season to be very much about Saga because Martin had huge personal stories in seasons one and two. So before this, we decided season three should be very much about Saga, her history and her backstory as her mother comes back to haunt her.”
Sofia Helin, who stars as Swedish detective Saga, describes Bodia’s departure as “a hard and difficult process. But when we accepted that, it was a gift because suddenly I had my character. She had failed at being a girlfriend and failed at being a friend, so she’s almost alone, and I could use that so much to put her in a very vulnerable place. Now I see it as a gift. It also gave us new energy. Suddenly we were on our toes. It was good.”
Launched in 2011 on Denmark’s DR and Sweden’s SVT, The Bridge opened with a body found on the Øresund Bridge, exactly on the border between Copenhagen and Malmö that links the two countries. Norén and Rohde were subsequently paired up to solve the case, a relationship that continued into season two, which aired in late-2013.
Following Bodnia’s decision to leave, the writers opted to leave Rohde languishing in prison at the beginning of season three as Norén teams up with a partner to solve a new spate of chilling murders after a Danish woman is found murdered on a Malmö construction site.
“It is a good place to start if you’ve never seen it before; you could easily start with season three,” says Rosenfeldt. “You quickly understand where Saga is, you don’t need the backstory, you don’t need to have seen Martin and she will get a new partner and things will develop from there. We don’t look back much. Season two was much more dependent on season one than this one is (on season two).”
One thing that does continue from previous seasons, however, is the show’s brooding visual style that mixes bleak landscapes with the often dark and grey skyline.
Producer Anders Landström says: “We’ve been working a lot with the style of the show. We started it on season one and have adjusted it over the series. Shooting in Scandinavia in the winter is very dark and grey so we go with that and try to do something really nice with it.”
Director Henrik Georgsson continues: “Our ideal time (to film) is November with no leaves on the trees. We don’t like anything that’s cute or picturesque. There’s no architecture from the 19th or early 20th century – only from 1930 onwards. It’s always glass, concrete or other hard materials.
“We try to make a cold world around the actors and characters. The visual world is very harsh and gloomy – in a good way, we think. We have a filming style; we don’t use wide angles close to the characters and a lot of the time we have things in the foreground and the camera is not high up, it’s always low. We think about it as if we’re doing cinema, not television, so we try to be cinematic. We try to make pictures for the screen rather than for the television.”
The new season also deals with contemporary themes and topics such as gender equality. One character is also a prominent video-blogger who records hate-filled rants in the opening episodes before being told her targets are later found dead.
Rosenfeldt says Scandinavian broadcasters demand these storylines outside the main plot. “It’s a requirement from our broadcasters that we should have something called the second story,” he explains. “When we pitch it, we say ‘this is what happens to our characters, this is the plot,’ but then they also want to know why it should be shown in 2015 and not five years ago or five years from now. And you always have to have an answer for that, which is good because it makes it very contemporary.”
With distributor ZDF Enterprises sending the series around the world, including to the UK where BBC4 launched season three this month, The Bridge is a bonafide international hit. But what’s behind its global appeal?
“We’re quite fortunate that we have done good stuff for a while and the rest of the world has caught up to us doing it,” Rosenfeldt says. “We have a long tradition of crime storytelling, both in books and films. We are and have been very good with characters. Plotting is the easy part of a crime show; it’s the characters you carry with you after the show and we’re quite good at creating compelling characters in Sweden and Denmark.
“I also think we are looked upon as a little eccentric. We don’t have curtains for our windows. Saga is quite free about her sex life, there’s her leather trousers, her Porsche. Maybe this isn’t so much the case in England, but I know that in Germany they love our crime shows and novels because there’s an image of us as the perfect society from the 1960s and 1970s where social security works perfectly and no one has to suffer. But those crime series show us that’s not really true. It’s another side of the story. It’s not the elks and small houses and everybody’s not jumping along singing happy tunes. It’s not Pippy Longstocking.”
Indeed, Cassian Harrison, channel editor of BBC4, says The Bridge is one of the most successful foreign-language series ever to appear on the channel.
“It’s an incredibly successful drama series worldwide and has done incredibly well for us here in the UK as well,” he says. “We’re incredibly proud of The Bridge and of being able to show it on BBC4. It’s a series on which we are only but one of many partners – (the others being) Filmlance International, Nimbus and ZDF.
“The Bridge is one of the most successful foreign-language dramas we’ve had on BBC4 and it’s been one of the real unique calling cards of the channel. Since 2006 when we started to run foreign-language dramas, particularly on Saturday nights, we’ve had some brilliant properties – Arne Dahl, The Young Montalbano, Hostages, 1864, The Bridge. Next year we’ve got some stunning new series, including a really brilliant thriller from Iceland.”
So can fans look forward to crossing The Bridge once again for a fourth season? Rosenfeldt says this has not yet been confirmed but believes the show can run and run.
“We can go on as long as we think we can do slightly better than or as good as the last season,” he says. “So we have to come up with stories worth telling and find the best way of telling them. From my point of view, we can do it for as long as it feels fun.”
A fourth outing is also likely to depend on Helin’s commitment to the show. “I have a hard time seeing The Bridge without Saga,” Rosenfeldt adds. “We managed to stay alive losing one of our main characters. I think it would be very hard to lose the other one as well.”