The previously untold story of how hundreds of children came to the UK from concentration camps at the end of the Second World War is dramatised in The Windermere Children, a stark and poignant film commissioned to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
In the summer of 1945, following the end of the Second World War and the Holocaust, hundreds of orphaned Jewish refugees started new lives in the picturesque surroundings of England’s Lake District.
When the Nazi concentration camps were liberated at the end of the six-year conflict, the survivors included many Jewish children who had been separated from their families and lived through the horrendous conditions they were confronted with.
On August 14, 1945, 300 young people – of a variety of ages and backgrounds – were brought from Prague via RAF aircraft to the Calgarth Estate beside Lake Windermere, where these children would spend four months together. In total, more than 700 young Jewish refugees came to England after the war.
This remarkable story is now the focus of a single drama commissioned by BBC2 in the UK and Germany’s ZDF, which airs today to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
The 90-minute film opens when a coach full of quiet, nervous children arrives at the former factory accommodation that would become their temporary home.
Carrying only a few small possessions and the clothes on their back, they are initially hesitant about what awaits them as they are asked to line up and hand over their belongings – a process echoing their time in the camps. The subsequent sight of their own bedrooms and plentiful baskets of fresh bread is initially overwhelming.
What transpires is a story of hope and survival as a team of counsellors try to help the children come to terms with their horrifying experiences and reclaim their lives. Together, they learn English, ride bikes and play football, while revolutionary art therapy sessions reveal some of their darkest nightmares – an element fully realised by the haunting screams that fill their dormitories each evening.
“I’d heard of The Windermere Children story before but I’d never understood the importance or the audacity of the undertaking or just what a life-changing event this was,” says Patrick Holland, controller of BBC2.
“Taking hundreds of children who had experienced the very worst of humanity is capable of and using the bucolic setting of the Lakes to help restart and reset what life could be felt like a work of fiction. But it was clear this transformative story demanded to be told.
“The Windermere Children explores the ability to start again in the darkest of times. It shows the profound positive impact one group of people had on the lives of others. It celebrates a nation welcoming the most vulnerable and allowing them to thrive.”
Writer Simon Block didn’t know the story, but was approached by producer Wall to Wall with the idea of bringing it to the screen. He says the way into the story became clear after meeting some of the real-life Windermere Children, the majority of whom were boys, and speaking to historians and researchers about what took place over those four months in 1945. Advisors included Trevor Avery and Rose Smith of the Lake District Holocaust Museum and the 45 Aid Society.
‘It was then a question of processing all that information and making sure we had a skeleton of a good story,” Block says. “However much information you have of a story that happened in real life, it still has to have the shape of a drama – but you don’t want to bend the facts to the shape. There was quite a lot of reworking to make sure we were accurate but also telling a compelling story.”
The story is led by powerful performances from young actors Marek Wroblewski (Sam Laskier), Kaceper Šwiętek (Chaim Olmer), Kuba Sprenger (Ike Alterman), Pascal Fischer (Ben Helfgott) and Jakub Jankiewicz (Salek), who all play real survivors who were brought to Windermere.
They are supported by a cast of actors also playing real people. Thomas Kretschmann (The Pianist) is child psychologist Oscar Friedmann, Romola Garai (The Miniaturist) plays art therapist Marie Paneth, Tim McInnery (Strangers) is philanthropist Leonard Montefiore and Iain Glen (Game of Thrones) takes the field as sports coach Jock Lawrence.
Garai, whose father’s family emigrated to the UK from Hungary before the war, describes Paneth as a “really incredible person.” She continues: “She developed art therapy and play therapy and had worked originally with children affected by the Blitz, and that was how she was drawn into the project.
“What the film really describes brilliantly and interestingly is the understanding that people came up against the greatest tragedy of all human history and found themselves maybe not quite prepared for that. They had all these wonderful intentions but the tsunami of suffering was something I don’t think they were ready for.
“People didn’t really know what they were doing except that they understood the human experience had to be more than just survival. It also had to be happiness, and they were trying to generate that feeling in the children again, or at least suggest it could be something they were striving for. It was very moving to me. They were really courageous people who were also slightly struggling in this very difficult situation.”
Glen expresses admiration for the way The Windermere Children, which was filmed in Northern Ireland, captures the horrors of the Holocaust without showing them, with the drama absent of any flashbacks or concentration camp reenactments.
“It was really down to these young actors who managed to do it, and Michael [Samuels, director] was brilliant with them,” he says. “You wanted that suggested history without every depicting it.”
Lawrence was a retired PE teacher who offered to help the children when they arrived at Windermere. “Just being outside and being active in the beautiful surroundings was actually really vital to a lot of their recovery,” Glen says. “All the people who received the kids weren’t quite prepared with the level of trauma and how to deal with it. In a simple sense, just getting them out and active was incredibly beneficial.”
Montefiore was behind the project, persuading the British government to allow hundreds of young Jewish concentration camp survivors to come to Britain, with the project supported by donations from the British Jewish community.
“They had no family to go home to. Something had to be done, and Leonard’s the kind of guy who fights and fights until those things happen,” McInnery says of his character. “He manages to raise money and convince politicians. I have huge admiration for these people; I’m hopeless at anything like that, so it’s humbling to play someone like that – who fights so hard on behalf of other people and dedicates their lives to it.
“What everybody managed to do in the space of four months is astonishing really. With these extraordinary people, the lives they [the children] managed to have afterwards are partly down to the people who gave them such help then.”
While the film – coproduced by Warner Bros ITVP Germany and distributed by Fremantle – is moving throughout and at times nightmarish and distressing, it is particularly poignant when the Red Cross delivers news of the fate of the children’s families, with none of it being positive. But it is ultimately a hugely uplifting and hopeful story, not least in the beautifully shot finale when the main characters stand on the bank of Lake Windermere, only to morph into their older, real-life counterparts.
“I would be instinctively cautious about doing something like that, but I felt in this situation it was absolutely merited and a way to link the past and the present,” Samuels says. “What we tried to avoid was the sense that ‘everything’s sorted out now’ in four months, which would be ludicrous. But what we’re saying is we can imagine these people have hope and they will take something away from Windermere that didn’t exist beforehand.”
Block notes that it would be too easy to downplay the amount of suffering the children went through. “It didn’t end at Windermere by any stretch of the imagination,” he adds. “We wanted to avoid patness and it wasn’t about trying to rub the audience’s nose in human misery. It’s a much more interesting story about how these children came together and built a platform for the rest of their lives. They weren’t necessarily easy [lives], but they did that and it was important to end the film on an uplifting note.”
Certainly, the survivors and their families who attended a BBC screening of the film were satisfied by what they saw.
Polish-born Arek Hersh, who spent three years in concentration camps and now lives in Leeds, said the show was “very realistic,” adding: “It made me weep a bit, from time to time, and it was a true story of what actually happened.”
Harry Olmer, a fellow Polish survivor who went on to become a dentist in Glasgow, added: “The people who portrayed us were absolutely spot on. We were seen to begin with as semi-savages and yet we were brought back into humanity. We became human beings again.”
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.”
Period crime drama Vienna Blood stands out as a unique European project, an adaptation of Frank Tallis’s novels that has been produced in English for German and Austrian broadcasters. DQ finds out more.
As a member of the writing team behind Sherlock, the television version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic character starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Steve Thompson has form when it comes to adapting detective novels.
His latest series, however, proved to be quite a different challenge. Vienna Blood, based on the Liebermann novels by Frank Tallis, sees a brilliant young English doctor – studying under famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud – partnered with a police detective who is struggling to solve a perplexing murder in 1900s Vienna.
Matthew Beard (Kiss Me First) plays Max Liebermann, who is keen to understand the criminal mind and begins to observe Detective Inspector Oskar Rheinhardt (Juergen Maurer, M: A City Hunts a Murderer), who is under increasing pressure to crack his latest case. Max’s extraordinary skills of perception and forensics, and his deep understanding of human behaviour and deviance, then lead Oskar to resolve Vienna’s most mysterious cases.
“They’re very different shows but they both hang on an iconic character,” Thompson says of Sherlock and his latest series. “The thing about Sherlock was you just wanted to hang out with the guy. For all that he was a high-functioning sociopath and was rude to just about everybody he met, you still wanted to be his mate.
“You want to hang out with Liebermann, too, because although he’s arrogant and thinks his way is the best way, he’s still very passionate, brilliant and charismatic. Our version of Sherlock was deliberately modern and used technology, but Vienna Blood is a very rich period drama that celebrates everything about that period.”
Shot almost entirely on location across the titular city, Vienna Blood’s every scene is soaked in the atmosphere of the period. It’s an important ingredient that Thompson took from Tallis’s novels, which are “phenomenal” at depicting the era.
“They’re just dripping in detail,” Thompson says of the books. “They’re so incredibly rich. It takes about two lines before you think, ‘This guy has actually been to Vienna.’ This is an incredibly vital time in the history of Vienna. So much was changing: this was the birth of modernism, and the clash between the modern and the old cultures was happening not only in medicine and psychology but also in music and art and architecture. That clash and richness of culture Frank sums up so beautiful in the incredible detail of what he writes.”
The initial challenge the writer faced was condensing Tallis’s lengthy novels, with the series comprising three feature-length films each based on different stories. Thompson describes the source material as an “embarrassment of riches,” noting that his task was really deciding what to leave out.
“We learn a lot more about them [the numerous characters] in the novel so it’s really about stripping back, which sounds like a brutal thing to do but it has to come down to the spine of the relationship between those two central characters and the investigation,” he explains. “It’s enormously challenging. Obviously there are different stories [to include] because we’re telling Max’s personal story as well as the story of the investigation, but part of the challenge is weaving those threads together and keeping those story threads very tight.”
In the first film, The Last Séance, Max first joins Oskar to assist in solving the murder of a female medium, whose death suggests supernatural powers are at work – the door is locked from the inside and the bullet that killed her has vanished. But with Oskar under pressure to secure an arrest, Max’s intervention couldn’t be less welcome, at least at first.
“From the beginning, you need the development of their relationship. If they meet each other and say, ‘Oh, great,’ that would not be very spicy for the story, so it’s normal and logical that he’s disturbed in his work by a young dandy showing up,” explains Austrian actor Maurer, who worked with a voice coach to improve his English. But as Max proves valuable with his Freud-influenced theories, Oskar begins to view his sidekick as an asset. “That’s how the story develops – the chemistry between the two main characters is very beautifully written by Steve, so we just had to follow that path. Matt and me, we worked together quite well.”
For Max, his developing interest in Freud’s theories may help his police work, but as he delves deeper into the minds of criminals, he puts his own mental health at risk as well as his relationships with those closest to him – girlfriend Clara (Louise von Finckh), father Mendel (Conleth Hill), mother Rachel (Amelia Bullmore) and older sister Leah (Charlene McKenna).
“It’s not very interesting playing a know-it-all if they don’t have some kind of flaw, so I was intrigued as to what it would be and that gives a clue as to where we’re going,” Beard says of Max’s deepening fascination with the criminal mind. “Perhaps taking an academic approach to other people’s psychology and other cases is no bad thing, but when you start to apply an academic approach to yourself and your own close relationships, maybe that’s not particularly helpful and not what your girlfriend wants to hear when you start psycho-analysing her. So we start to see where that goes, and that was definitely a big pull for me.”
In a unique commissioning setup, Vienna Blood was ordered by Austria’s ORF and ZDF in Germany, with UK prodco Endor Productions partnering with MR Films to make the drama in the English language. Red Arrows Studios International is distributing, with BBC2 picking up the UK rights and launching the series on Monday, November 18. It will then launch on ORF and ZDF with German dubbing under the title Liebermann.
Beard, who is interested in psychology and had done his own research into the subject before filming began, says one of the most exciting parts of the job was working with a largely Austrian and German crew. “It was always going to be such an interesting challenge and I love that. Working with Juergen was an absolute highlight but then, every now and again, this care package would be sent in from home in the shape of my [screen] family and I was given a mum, a dad and a sister. It was so exciting.”
Thompson says the relationship between Max and Oskar is key to the series, with their friendship growing across the three episodes, while viewers will also see more of Oskar’s own family. “They become great buddies,” he reveals, “and it becomes a very warm relationship. They’re people we want to hang out with. That’s right at the heart of it.”
With seven novels in Tallis’s series, there is scope to return to Vienna Blood, especially as the demand for crime drama around the world continues to prove insatiable. Thompson says the show has both the plot and the characters to be a success, and believes its Viennese setting will add an extra layer of intrigue and fascination, with the setting providing a mesmerising backdrop in the hands of lead director Robert Dornhelm.
“You watch crime dramas and think, ‘Oh my God, that’s so brutal. I’m glad I’m not there.’ But that’s never how you feel about this. You watch this and think, ‘I would give my right arm to be transported to Vienna in 1906, just for five minutes,’” Thompson adds. “Though parts of it are very dark and terrifying, parts of it are exhilarating to experience. In episode one, there’s a magnificent rooftop chase, and to run across the rooftops of Vienna was quite something. Just to see the labyrinthine parts of the city that nobody had seen for decades was really exciting.”
Swedish drama West of Liberty brings the first book in Thomas Engström’s spy series to television. DQ speaks to producer Gunnar Carlsson about making the English-language series, which is set and filmed in Berlin.
Once upon a time, the idea of an English-language Swedish drama set in Germany might have seemed impossible to realise, considering the number of potential partners involved and the logistics of pulling together such a collaboration.
But today, such considerations are water off a duck’s back to a producer like Anagram, which has offices in Sweden and Norway and has successfully completed series set as far away from Western Europe as Thailand and India.
The independent prodco’s latest series is West of Liberty, an action-packed, suspense-filled spy thriller that will receive its international premiere tomorrow as part of Berlinale’s Drama Series Days event.
The six-part drama centres on Ludwig Licht, a former Stasi agent and CIA informant who works as a freelance problem-solver and bartender in Berlin. When his old partner Clive Barner, head of the CIA’s Berlin office, asks him to come out of retirement and work a case involving Lucien Gell, the corrupt leader of whistle-blowing site Hydraleaks, Licht gets the chance to solve one last investigation.
Wotan Wilke Möhring stars as Licht, with Michelle Meadows as former Hydraleaks legal advisor Faye Morris. The cast also includes Matthew Marsh and Philipp Karner.
Produced by Lund-based Anagram for Sweden’s SVT and German broadcaster ZDF, West of Liberty is based on the first novel in Thomas Engström’s acclaimed book series. It will also air on TV2 Norway and YLE in Finland, with ITV Studios Global Entertainment distributing.
Anagram Sweden’s head of drama, Gunnar Carlsson, first came across the story when Engström’s agent gave him a copy of the book. “I read it very early and immediately I was interested in it,” he recalls. “Then I got to know this was the first of a series. We optioned them all and started work.”
The fact the story is set in Berlin was no deterrent to producing the show, with Carlsson embracing the project as the next “natural step” for a Swedish company looking to break into the international market. “It’s the next step – not doing Swedish shows sold abroad but doing international shows directly for the market. This is a very natural step to take,” he says.
In particular, it was the fact West of Liberty is a character-driven story, rather than a plot-heavy drama you might expect from the spy genre, that most appealed to the producer. “Of course there’s a plot there but it’s also very character-driven and this is something I liked very much,” he says. “There’s a lot of depth to the characters. So my interest in this was the characters, particularly the main character Licht, who is a former Stasi guy who double-plays with the CIA and now lives in Berlin where he runs a bar. He has a very interesting story.
“It also has a lot of action in the plot – they’re chasing a guy who’s running a Wikileaks-like organisation who is in hiding. This was written before [Wikileaks founded Julian] Assange ended up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London but it’s quite an astonishing coincidence. It’s very contemporary.”
With Sara Heldt (The Crown Princess, The Dying Detective) and Donna Sharpe
(The Team, Teufelsberg) on writing duties, the scripts were initially penned in Swedish by Heldt before she and Sharpe translated them into English. West of Liberty’s characters come from a variety of backgrounds, so English was the common language used on screen, though characters also use their native languages where possible.
Carlsson describes Heldt as “one of the best scriptwriters we have,” having previously worked with her while he was an executive at Swedish pubcaster SVT. “She’s very good on character. She was my absolute first choice and has written most of the script [in Swedish]. Sara is Swedish and she’s fluent in English but, at the same time, it’s different [speaking English as a second language]. So before we started shooting, we looked for an English writer. My partner, Bettina Went, had worked with Donna before and she followed the scripts through the whole production.”
Behind the camera is Barbara Eder (Thank You For Bombing, Tatort), who Carlsson says has used a hand-held style to film the series. “It’s not mainstream,” he explains, noting that this technique brings a freedom to the visuals, which also incorporate natural light where possible. The acting is also very natural, adding to the cinematic tone of the drama. “This is something we wanted from the beginning when we were looking for directors who had worked a bit like that, and that’s how we found Barbara,” he continues. “She picked Carl Sundberg, the DOP, who is also used to working this way. We put together a team that could do this a bit more advanced than a mainstream show.”
The majority of filming took place in Berlin, with additional scenes shot in Cologne and Bonn in Germany as well as Malmo in Sweden. But the story is entirely set in the German capital.
“This is the way international shows are done because you do it out of financial terms; you get support and have to spend money in certain areas,” Carlsson says. “Interior apartments in Berlin are shot in Malmo and so on. The beginning of the show is shot in Marrakesh, Morocco. It all starts there.”
In Germany, Anagram was supported by Hamburg-based Network Movie, a company with which Carlsson had also worked while at SVT on shows such as Bron (The Bridge). That Network Movie is owned by German network ZDF meant there was a natural connection to another broadcaster that could support the series with additional financing.
“We went to them and, together with them and the producer and their team, we started to plan how to put this together,” Carlsson says. “When you look at the style of the show, you don’t look at the countries, you look at the people. We found Barbara in Austria and Carl in Sweden. But then later on if you’re going to shoot 50 days in Berlin, you choose a team from Germany. It worked very well. It was quite easy. Then when we moved to Sweden, we shot in Malmo and the heads of departments [HODs] we had in Germany followed on but then we had a Swedish team there. If you have the same HODs and DOP, it’s no problem [to keep the same style or tone]. Even the culture in doing stuff in Germany and Sweden doesn’t differ that much. We talk the same, we understand the same stuff. It’s very easy.”
Anagram is suitably experienced in filming Swedish dramas overseas, with credits that include Thailand-set 30 Grader i Februari (30 Degrees in February) and Delhis Vackraste Händer (The Most Beautiful Hands in Delhi), which was shot entirely in New Delhi.
In comparison, there were few challenges filming in Berlin, a relative neighbour to Malmö, the largest city in Southern Sweden and close to Anagram’s base in nearby Lund. The geographical distance was short, for example, and there was no time difference, but working between two countries simply meant things such as financial reports took a little more time. Carlsson says this can cause a two-step development process, instead of one step, “but it’s not a problem as such. Sometimes we have a time delay if you need to make quick decisions. We didn’t have this problem, but you notice it. We have made shows in Thailand and New Dehli and then you have problems with the time difference and cultural difference. For us ,this was easy.
“One lesson we learned working with people from other countries is even though we are very much alike, we are different. You have to adapt to the culture and not work against it. That’s something you have to have in mind even if you go to Berlin. If you don’t work like that, you will have problems. As long as it’s possible, you have to adapt. That’s something you learn very quickly when you work in cultures that are so different from our European traditions. It’s something you can learn even if doing a production with partners in Europe.”
The series needed to be filmed in Berlin, however, as Engström describes the city as one of the characters in the story, demanding a level of authenticity that couldn’t be replicated in a studio or another European location. “The story couldn’t take place in a place other than Berlin because it has its traces in the Cold War, and these characters come out of that. Berlin is a very integrated part of the series,” Carlsson adds.
Engström followed West of Liberty with three more novels – South of Hell (2014), North of Paradise (2015) and East of the Abyss (2017). Writers are already working on the second book adaptation, with Carlsson in talks with potential Canadian coproduction partners, as South of Hell unfolds in Washington D.C. and rural Pennsylvania.
If the series’ success continues, Anagram will have further opportunities to flex its international coproduction muscles, with North of Paradise set in Florida and Cuba, while East of the Abyss plays out in Ukraine, Armenia and Georgia.
International coproductions are nothing new, but as more globally ambitious dramas are emerging, DQ speaks to the producers behind some of these long-distance series to find out how stories spanning multiple countries are made.
The global boom in international coproductions has seen the rise of new cross-border partnerships as technological advances and greater working collaborations mean previously untold stories can now be brought to the small screen.
But when it comes to telling a story set in multiple countries, whether it involves creative talent from across Europe, Asia or on opposite sides of the world, how do the various players involved ensure they are all working to tell the same story?
Retelling myths and legends from numerous different countries, HBO Asia’s original horror series Folklore is surely one of the most imaginative and challenging productions of recent years.
The six-part anthology series sees each episode tell a new story set across six Asian countries – Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand – via a modern adaptation of that country’s folklore, featuring supernatural beings and the occult. Each episode also has a different director.
“I have always seen the series as a celebration of Asia’s diversity. So from the start, I wanted the episodes to be in their native language so that the richness of the different territories can shine,” explains showrunner Eric Khoo (pictured above on set), who also directs episode three, Nobody, which is set in Singapore. “I would have liked to include other countries such as the Philippines and some of the other emerging markets. But as it was our first step into doing a series of this scale, we decided to just do six and not be too greedy.”
Each director worked with their own production team, though several producers from Zhao Wei Films came on board to oversee the production. “We had total trust in the directors to assemble their local team,” Khoo says.
Filming in multiple territories meant collaborating with local producers, with Khoo noting that communication was key. But the biggest challenge? “My producers said the paperwork was a nightmare,” the showrunner reveals.
That Denmark and New Zealand are worlds apart was what appealed to producer Philly de Lacey when Screentime NZ partnered with Copenhagen-based Mastiff for eight-part series Straight Forward. Set in both Copenhagen and Queenstown, the series is described as an intricate and entertaining mix of crime caper and a voyage of discovery as a Danish woman attempts to leave her criminal past behind by moving to a small Kiwi town to start a new life.
“We couldn’t get more polar opposite, and that’s part of the beauty of it,” de Lacey says. “Although we’re culturally similar in a lot of places, there are lots of differences to play on too.” When Screentime revealed its plans for the multi-national drama, fellow Banijay Group-owned firm Mastiff jumped on the idea straight away. Nordic SVoD service Viaplay will screen the series locally, with TVNZ coproducing in association with Acorn Media Enterprises and Acorn TV in the US. Banijay Rights is handling international distribution (excluding New Zealand, Scandinavia, North America, the UK and Australia).
“We don’t think anyone’s done a Danish-New Zealand copro before,” de Lacey says. “It’s challenging because you’re dealing with two different languages, but the story really lends itself to working across two countries, so it’s perfect. It’s exciting for our Danish partners because they get to tell a Danish story that goes out into an English space in a natural way. And it’s exciting for us to be able to tell a New Zealand story that goes out to the world in a natural way as well.”
Filming took place for more than four months, with studio space in Auckland and a second unit in Queenstown, before another unit travelled to Denmark to get the key Copenhagen elements. Though Screentime took the lead on decision-making during production, de Lacey says they were in constant communication with Mastiff.
“We did a lot of script work right through production, particularly once the Danish cast came on board,” she says, revealing how integral they were in ensuring an accurate portrayal of Danish culture. “It was critical for us that, when the show goes out, the Danish audience really believes the authenticity of the Danish elements of the show. Their input was invaluable.”
Across the Tasman Sea separating New Zealand and Australia, Scottish producer Synchronicity Films filmed scenes from BBC four-part drama The Cry in Melbourne before heading to Glasgow to complete the story of a couple’s distress when their baby mysteriously disappears. Jenna Coleman and Ewan Leslie star in the series, which is distributed by DRG.
Having considered using South Africa to double as Australia, executive producer Claire Mundell says the authenticity of the story, which was based on a book itself set in Melbourne, demanded the production head down under. That meant a lot of preparation was needed, as Synchronicity had never filmed in Australia before, meaning reconnaissance work, reaching out to local producers and undertaking a casting search. The decision to film Melbourne first before moving on to Glasgow informed the hiring of Australian director Glendyn Ivin and DOP Sam Chiplin, with December Media becoming the local production partner.
Challenges included overcoming differences in working practices, the fluctuating exchange rate and the higher cost of living in Australia, which makes it an expensive place to shoot compared with the UK. Scottish department heads also travelled to Melbourne so they could work on both sides of the shoot, and Mundell estimates the production spent at least £1m ($1.3m) on travel and accommodation alone.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, and unavoidably, the time difference between the UK and Australia – ranging from nine to 11 hours during the production on account of daylight savings switches – was one of the biggest challenges, with Mundell conferencing with Australian broadcaster the ABC when in Scotland and then with the BBC while on location in Melbourne. “There’s been a fair old amount of times we’ve been working 20 hours round the clock between an early morning call, doing your full day’s shoot and then doing stuff at night,” she says. “It has been really demanding.”
Over in Europe, Swedish producer Anagram headed to Germany for spy thriller West of Liberty. Based on the novel by Thomas Engström, it centres on Ludwig Licht (Wotan Wilke Möhring), a former Stasi agent and CIA informant who is brought back into the game when he is given the chance to investigate the corrupt leader of a WikiLeaks-style whistle-blowing website.
“It’s a natural step for us,” producer Gunnar Carlsson says of making the Berlin-set English-language drama. “We have done Swedish series airing in Scandinavia. It’s the next step – not doing Swedish shows sold abroad, but doing international shows directly for the global market.”
Produced for pubcasters ZDF in Germany and SVT in Sweden, the six-part series is being distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment. The scripts were penned by a Swedish-British writing team of Sara Heldt and Donna Sharpe. Filming took place in the German capital, as well as Cologne, Bonn and Malmö in Sweden, though the story is set in Berlin. Several opening scenes were also shot in Marrakesh, Morocco.
When he first picked up the rights to the book, Carlsson immediately identified a German partner in Network Movie, having previously worked with the company when he was an SVT executive. “They are also owned by ZDF so they have a connection to the channel, which helps with financing,” he says. “We went to them and together we started to plan how to put this together. We found [director] Barbara Eder in Austria, but if you’re going to shoot 50 days in Berlin, you choose a team from Germany. Then when we moved to Sweden, we shot in Malmö and the heads of department we had in Germany followed on to join us.”
Though the distance between Sweden and Germany pales in comparison to those confronted by the producers of The Cry and Straight Forward, Carlsson says the key to a successful production experience is to adopt the culture of the country you are working in, no matter how similar you might think you are. “That’s something you have to have in mind even if you go to Berlin,” he says. “As long as it’s possible, you have to adapt. That’s something you learn very quickly when you work in cultures that are so different from our European traditions. It’s something you can learn even if you’re doing a production with partners in Europe.”
Anagram has previously worked overseas, in Thailand for 30 Degrees in February and India for The Most Beautiful Hands of Delhi. “Then you have problems with the time difference and cultural difference,” Carlsson notes. In comparison, West of Liberty “was easy,” he adds.
Elsewhere, under head of drama Jarmo Lampela, Finnish public broadcaster YLE is expanding the range of drama series it is commissioning by seeking out local stories told on an international scale. Among these is Invisible Heroes, the story of a Finnish diplomat in Chile who decides to hide hundreds of Chilean dissidents during Augusto Pinochet’s coup in 1973. Set in both countries, the show is a copro between Kaiho Republic in Finland and Parox in Chile for YLE and Chilevisión.
Finnish writer Tarja Kylmä spent several weeks in Chile working with local scribe Manuela Infante to set the series outline, which is based on a true story that was only recently uncovered in a book. Lampela gave the book to Kylmä, who immediately set about developing the story for television. “I went to Chile during the outlines, visited all the places in the story and got into the mood of 1970s Chile,” Kylmä says. “Since then, it’s been daily communication with Manuela, and the producer in Chile, Leonora González, has been reading everything and commenting carefully. With the time difference, I work morning and afternoon in Finland and then the day starts in Chile and they start sending questions. When I wake up in the morning, there are more questions.”
The series features the Spanish, Finnish, Swedish and German languages, meaning multiple translations of the script are required. But Liselott Forsman, executive producer of international projects at YLE, says the drama is evidence of two small countries uniting to tell one story: “Of course there are language problems, but nothing major. Things have changed in Latin America, notably the acting. Previously in melodramas, the acting was very different. It was not as naturalistic as we are used to in the Nordics. But now when you put actors from two cultures together, you can find the right approach.”
Another Finnish project set across a vast distance is The Paradise, which is produced by YLE and Spain’s Mediapro. Due to air in autumn 2019, most of the show’s action unfolds in the Spanish town of Fuengirola, the “Finnish capital of Spain,” where a 60-year-old female police officer must uncover how a group of pensioners died amid suspicious circumstances.
Filming will take place in Finland in December, with production moving to Spain at the end of January. Described as “Mediterranean noir,” the show was created by David Troncoso, who sought to take the darker elements of Scandianvian dramas and set them against the warm sunshine of the Costa del Sol. He then partnered with YLE’s Lampela, writer Matti Laine and Mediapro head of international development Ran Tellem to develop the series.
The group spent time together in Fuengirola to study the Finnish community there before beginning to write the series, which revolves around Hilkka Mäntymäki (played by Riitta Havukainen), a senior criminal investigator from Oulu who goes to Spain to find out what happened to a missing family, before becoming embroiled in a potential murder investigation.
Development was split between Spain and Finland, with showrunner and director Marja Pyykkö joining the team. The production will be largely filmed in Fuengirola, where some of the streets have Finnish names, giving rise to the moniker ‘Little Helsinki.’ The story will unfold in Finnish, Spanish and English, with YLE distributing the drama in Scandinavia and Imagina International Sales selling to the rest of the world.
“Coproductions are the best part of the job,” Tellem says. “I have the privilege of working with writers across the world – we are involved in projects in Mexico, Italy, England and many other places. The ability to do creative work with people from other countries and other cultures is the best. There are different styles of storytelling, but everybody’s talking about human beings and the way they deal with things in their lives.
“But I do insist on meeting people. For me, this is essential. Never start the creative process before you spend some quality time with people.”
Through Pyykkö, the series will be told from a Finnish perspective, with most of the crew and the main characters also coming from Finland. Tellem says that, regardless of the partners involved, the viewpoint of the series is most important, as trying to split the creative process 50/50 doesn’t work. “The show needs an anchor in the ground,” he adds. “You need to make a decision: is this a Spanish show with a Finnish touch or a Finnish show with a Spanish touch? Once you decide that and understand who is making the calls, that’s the first step to success.”
Screentime’s de Lacey sums up the trend for multi-national dramas when she says barriers to non-English language series have been pulled down, paving the way for increasingly ambitious stories to be told against an international setting. Her production company is already developing another story with a German partner. “There’s a lot of stuff we’ve learned about the translation of languages,” de Lacey says. “You can’t translate the New Zealand script directly into Danish, because Danes don’t speak the same way. Direct translations don’t work. If we do a season two, we’ll bring in a Danish writer much earlier into the process.”
Synchronicity’s Mundell says the challenges of any coproduction will always be time differences and different working practices and relationships. “That’s a daunting task, but you have to approach it in a professional way,” she adds. “If you choose carefully and do your research into who you’re working with, hopefully things work out well for you, which is what happened with us.”
Freya Becker works as a typist in the homicide division of the Berlin police. Since the disappearance of her daughter 11 years ago, she lives in the hope of finding out what happened to her.
When the only man who might give her information about Marie’s fate is released from prison and Freya’s work confronts her with an abuse case similar to her daughter’s, she begins a painful journey to finally get to the bottom of the truth – whatever the cost.
The five-part series stars Iris Berben as Freya alongside Moritz Bleibtreu, Peter Kurth, Mišel Maticevic, Katharina Schlothauer, Laura de Boer and Bettina Hoppe.
In this DQTV interview, star Berben and writer/director Nina Grosse reveal the origins of the series and how they worked together to bring the story to the screen.
They also talk about wider issues surrounding the television industry, such as the #MeToo movement.
The Typist is produced by Moovie for Germany’s ZDF and distributed by Beta Film.
Television held its own at one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world as an array of talent and some stunning new shows landed in Germany for Berlinale’s fourth annual Drama Series Days. DQ was in town to find out more.
For those in the television industry, the chance to rub shoulders with A-list movie stars might once have seemed a pipe dream. But for anyone who attended the Berlin International Film Festival this week, that dream was very much a reality.
Now in its fourth year, Berlinale’s Drama Series Days has established itself as one of the premier television events around the world as the German capital rolls out the red carpet for stars of the big screen – and small.
To find yourself caught up in a maelstrom of photographers’ flash bulbs and screaming and cheering fans might not be an unusual event at a film festival. But to then peer over the barriers and find the stars of Australian drama Picnic at Hanging Rock posing for the cameras is proof that television is now assured of the same reverence as cinema. And for good reason. The talent the industry is able to attract is of a level never seen before in terms of movie stars signing up for longer-form storytelling. The productions themselves are also worthy of acclaim, with the word ‘cinematic’ a staple adjective regularly dished out to describe the scale of dramas now on screen.
Picnic at Hanging Rock, which will air on Foxtel in Australia later this year and is distributed by FremantleMedia, is a case in point. Game of Thrones alum Natalie Dormer turns in a standout performance as Hester Appleyard, the headmistress of a girls’ boarding school that faces tragedy when three pupils disappear during a picnic at the titular rock. The series also pops with colour and visual flair thanks to director Larysa Kondracki, making it stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Peter Weir’s celebrated 1975 film adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s novel, which also serves as the source of the television reimagining.
The six-part miniseries – there will be no sequel that goes beyond the book, delegates in Berlin were told – was one of seven screenings that took place as part of the Berlinale Series programme, highlighting some of the biggest new dramas from around the world.
Others included Israeli psychological thriller Sleeping Bears, written and directed by Keren Magalit (Yellow Peppers, The A Word), and Bad Banks. The latter is described as a six-part Machiavellian thriller set in the ruthless world of international finance and the stock market. Produced by Letterbox Filmproduktion and Iris Production for ZDF (Germany) and Arte (France), it has already been picked up by HBO Europe, Walter Presents UK, RTÉ in Ireland, Sundance TV Iberia and RTP in Portugal ahead of its debut next month.
Two new Scandinavian dramas were also selected. Heimebane (Home Ground) tackles gender issues as a female football coach becomes the first woman to take charge of a men’s team in the Norwegian premier league. Already commissioned for a second season by NRK, it stars Ane Dahl Torp and former footballer John Carew, well known to fans in Europe after playing for sides including Valencia and Aston Villa, as well as the Norway national team.
Meanwhile, amid talk of Scandi broadcasters losing interest in what the rest of the world calls Nordic noir, one show is set to push new boundaries at Danish net DR. Known for its original series including Forbrydelsen (The Killing), Borgen and Broen (The Bridge), DR’s forthcoming drama Liberty stands out as something totally different for the channel. It also marks a rare book adaptation to land on the network.
Based on Jakob Ejersbo’s novel, it follows a group of Scandinavian expats living and working in Tanzania, and explores themes of corruption, identity, morals and friendship. Hollywood actor Connie Nielsen joined fellow cast members including Carsten Bjørnlund plus creator Asger Leth and director Mikael Marcimain on the red carpet in Berlin.
The Berlinale official selection was completed by two new US series, showcasing the vast range of storytelling television now affords. The Looming Tower, debuting next month on US streamer Hulu and showcased in Berlin by European partner Amazon, is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Lawrence Wright. The story traces the rising threat of Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda in the late 1990s and how the rivalry between the FBI and CIA at that time may have set the path for tragedy on 9/11.
Stars Jeff Daniels, Ali Soufan, Peter Sarsgaard and showrunner Dan Futterman (pictured top) were in Germany to promote the show, which injects reality into a Homeland-style political thriller.
At the other end of the spectrum, meanwhile, is The Terror, AMC’s take on the true story of the crews of two British Royal Navy ships that attempt to discover the Northwest Passage in the mid-1800s. This isn’t just another historical drama, however. Faced with treacherous conditions, limited resources and a fear of the unknown, the crew members are pushed to the brink of extinction as they face all kinds of dangers, from both human and otherworldly sources.
The mix of horror and the supernatural, coupled with the eerie Arctic landscapes, certainly makes this show one to watch, with co-showrunners David Kajganich and Soo Hugh promising to reward viewers through the 10-part series, which features Jared Harris (Mad Men) and Tobias Menzies (Outlander) among the ensemble cast.
The strength of the drama on show this week in Berlin and the number of small-screen stars descending upon the city were proof of television’s strength at an event usually revered as one of the most prestigious film festivals on the international circuit. With more film talent on both sides of the camera now championing the opportunities offered by longform storytelling, and the chance to develop characters across more than a two-hour period, coupled with television’s new openness to genre and plot, expect to see television play an even greater role in at Berlinale in 2019.
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.
One day Jannis Niewöhner was shooting an art-house film, the next he was giving a rallying speech to 150 extras on the set of a German historical miniseries. He tells DQ about period drama Maximilian and Marie de Bourgogne.
By the time Jannis Niewöhner arrived on the set of German historical miniseries Maximilian & Marie de Bourgogne, he had completed two films back-to-back before “crashing” into his latest role as the titular 15th century Austrian archduke.
“I had, like, one day off between projects and then Maximilian was four months of working,” he recalls. “It was crazy but good – it was an experience. The interesting thing about such a long shoot is you have to find your motivation and energy for the whole time. On other movies, we do it in one or two months and then you’re done. But after two months on Maximilian, we knew it was going to be two more. To have the same motivation was tough but we were able to do it because we had a great story and a great team.”
Set in 1477, the show retells the love story between Marie (Christa Theret), the orphaned daughter of the ruler of the House of Burgundy, and Maximilian (Niewöhner), the son of the Roman Emperor, as they try to survive and rule in the battle for supremacy in Europe.
The cast also includes Tobias Moretti, Jean-Hughes Anglade, Miriam Gussenegger and Alix Poisson. The show, which debuts in Austria on ORF next month and on ZDF in Germany in the fall, is coproduced by the two networks alongside MR Film and Beta Film.
“He’s an impulsive and hot-headed guy,” Niewöhner says of his character. “He’s the son of the emperor of Austria. He rebels against his father, who waits until the enemy gets tired, is out of money or out of men, and he hates that. He sees it as a sign of weakness and wants to make strong decisions; he wants to fight. That’s one side of him – the other is the sensitive, immature side. Then he meets Marie and he has to discover how to deal with a woman he has to marry. It’s interesting to have both sides of that character that are really far away from each other.”
Having previously starred in film and TV series, German actor Niewöhner describes the six-hour Maximilian as a “long movie.” And, as a fan of Maximilian director Andreas Prochaska’s 2014 movie The Dark Valley, he was keen to link up with the Austrian.
“It was such a great movie – it was cool and looked great. But he [Prochaska] never loses the story or the character,” Niewöhner explains. “And I was interested in doing a genre movie but I also wanted to tell a true story.
“Andreas was great. He’s what you wish a director to be like. I had a lot of freedom, I could try a lot of things and he trusted me. That’s the best feeling you can have as an actor. [There are moments when] he comes to you and says little things, but you never get the feeling you have to do something you can’t do. You can feel like that sometimes when you do a movie. He’s open and he has the right attitude. His perspective of doing movies is that while it’s something we love and have a lot of passion for, it’s only a movie.”
As you might expect from an actor taking on a factual role such as Maximilian, Niewöhner set out to research the true story of his character – but was wary of straying too far from the character laid out in Martin Ambrosch’s script.
“I read some books at the beginning but then I recognised that I should not spend too much time on the historical facts because you can distance yourself from the script and that’s not a good thing,” he notes. “The special thing about Maximilian is it’s a coming-of-age story. He’s a young guy like me who has many questions and is angry and doesn’t know why. He’s someone I can compare myself to. It was important to focus on that.”
The period costumes and sets also helped Niewöhner get into character – as did his French co-star Theret, despite the language barrier between the pair.
“Playing with Christa was so interesting because we spoke different languages, but it worked,” he admits. “I thought it wouldn’t work because she speaks French and I speak German. That’s a strange thing and not something you have in real life, but you just focus on the eyes and body language – maybe that’s where the most emotion is.
“If you look each other in the eyes and are both committed and want to tell the story, it’s really easy to be close and to feel something for each other. It was great shooting with her.”
Filming across Austria and the Czech Republic, as well as in Budapest, Hungary, the actor compares the travelling production to being on a school trip.
He adds: “This production was a boy’s dream, but the biggest challenge was on my first day. Before, I was shooting an art-house movie with just 20 people in the team, improvising, and then I was standing on the set of Maximilian with 150 extras in front of me and I had to give a speech as the new duke of Bourgogne. It was a challenge but it was good to do it in the first days of shooting.
“Maximilian was like nothing I’ve done before. It was all new. I’ve done genre movies before but something like this, where you pretend to be the guy who makes decisions for a whole country, that was something new.”
With TV series becoming more cinematic, Niewöhner expects to be back on the small screen, but cinema will always be his first love – “because there I have a lot of time to prepare. I feel you have more freedom, but in this case [on Maximilian], it was produced like cinema and it looks like cinema, and that’s a great thing.”
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.”
Nordic drama has made its mark on the international stage over the last few years. But what’s coming next? A good source of information is the Nordisk Film & TV Fund, which provides regular updates on shows in development, production and distribution. So this week we look at some of the latest developments from the region.
Next Summer: Bob Film is remaking Norwegian comedy Next Summer for Kanal5/Discovery in Sweden. The original version aired on TVNorge/Discovery and was one of the country’s most popular local TV dramas. The Swedish remake, which will air in 2017, centres on a man who shares a summer house with his wife and in-laws in Stockholm’s archipelago. Bob Film also remade the Finnish drama Nurses for TV4 Sweden. That show, known locally as Syrror, launched on October 19, attracting an audience of one million. It’s part of wider trend of local Nordic adaptations that also includes Gåsmamman and Black Widows. Bob Film is also working with Sweetwater on a crime drama called Missing (Saknad) for CMore and TV4, which focuses on the investigation into the murder of a young girl in a Swedish Bible-belt town.
Bonusfamiljen (The Bonus Family): Nordisk Film & TV Fond has just allocated a total of NOK9.4m (US$1.14m) to a slate of new film and TV projects. One of them is season two of The Bonus Family, a comedy drama about a recomposed family and the complications that go with it. Season one is due to air on SVT in 2017, as well as on NRK, YLE, RUV and DR. Season two, granted NOK2.4m (US$290,000), started filming in September and will continue until February 2017.
Downshifters: This Finnish series has just secured a French sales rep (ACE Entertainment) while Sweden’s Anagram has optioned remake rights for its own market. The 10-part comedy from Yellow Film & TV has been generating a good buzz since it launched on OTT service Elisa in late 2015. More recently, it aired on YLE2 and established itself as the second most watched programme. The series tells the story of a couple who face financial problems and are forced to cut down on their extravagant lifestyle. A second series, Upshifters, will launch on Elisa in December 2016.
The Rain: News of this Danish show has been doing the rounds in the last couple of weeks. Produced by Miso Film (Dicte, 1864, Acquitted), The Rain is a dystopian drama commissioned by Netflix. The series is set in Copenhagen 10 years after a biological catastrophe that wipes out most of the population in Scandinavia and sees two young siblings embark on a search for safety. Guided only by their father’s notebook about the virus and the hazards of this new world, they start a dangerous journey through the country and join up with a group of other young survivors. Miso has had a busy few months, with the second season of Acquitted recently launching on TV2 in Norway.
Midnight Sun: This Swedish/French crime show recently debuted to 1.39 million viewers (38.1% share) on SVT1 in the Sunday 21.00 slot. According to the channel, this performance is comparable with The Bridge (Bron/Broen). Midnight Sun also trended at number two on Twitter – and online viewers, which are still to be added to the count, could pass 200,000. The show also secured strong reviews in the Swedish media, with five stars out of five in Aftonbladet. Elsewhere in Scandinavia, Midnight Sun will premiere on RUV on December 5. DR, NRK and MTV3 are likely to air the show, which is distributed internationally by StudioCanal, in early 2017.
Nobel: Trapped and Nobel were among 26 European fiction TV series selected for the Prix Europa Media awards last month. Trapped, an Icelandic crime show, won Best European TV Series while Nobel, a Norwegian political/war drama, won Best European TV Movie/Miniseries. Nobel was described as “a precisely crafted original script, perfectly executed and directed, that takes the viewer on a journey into a world of lies, betrayal, mistrust and political games.” Produced by Monster Scripted for NRK, Nobel secured 800,000 viewers for its first episode across NRK1 and NRK streaming service NRK.TV. Both Trapped and Nobel were supported by Nordisk Film & TV Fond. Nobel was directed by Per Olav Sørensen, who also directed The Heavy Water War.
Heartless: In a recent interview with The Nordisk Film & TV Fond, SVoD service Walter Presents’ curator Walter Iuzzolino said 25-30% of the platform’s shows are from Scandinavia. In terms of titles doing well, he mentioned Heartless: “Our curated programme goes way beyond the tradition of Nordic Noir that has been established by the BBC. I would say that 30% of our audience is 16 to 34, the rest 35-plus. The sexy Danish vampire series Heartless, for example, was a huge hit among 16-24s. Normally I hate fantasy and sci-fi but it’s elegant, poetic, cleverly done and an interesting portrayal of a family – a sort of vampire version of The Legacy. It was a huge success, pushed only by word of mouth.”
Watchdog: At last month’s Mipcom market in Cannes, ZDF Enterprises announced an exclusive first-look rights deal for all scripted content from the Finnish producer Fisher King. Matti Halonen, Fisher King MD and producer, said: “ZDF Enterprises is a well-established company that can give a lot of support to a smaller player like Fisher King.” The first joint project that ZDFE is working on is the upcoming political thriller series Watchdog. Set in present-day Helsinki, The Hague and London, it’s described as an adrenaline trip into the heart of European justice policy and security regulations concerning source protection and privacy insurance. Fisher King is also behind Bordertown, which is represented worldwide by Federation Entertainment and has been sold to Sky Deutschland and CanalPlay France, while English-language series Crypted is also in its pipeline.
Deadwind: Paris-based financing and distribution boutique About Premium Content (APC) recently picked up Finnish crime drama Deadwind. The 12-part series is about a detective in her 30s who is trying to get over her husband’s death when she discovers the body of a young woman on a construction site. At Mipcom, APC launched Norwegian drama thriller Valkyrien, which is produced by Tordenfilm for NRK. It also distributes another Norwegian show, the youth-oriented Young & Promising, which was recently sold to the UK, Germany and France and has a US deal is in negotiation.
Dan Sommerdahl: This autumn it was announced that Nikolaj Scherfig (The Bridge) would be co-creator/head-writer on Dan Sommerdahl, a new series based on Danish author Anna Grue’s bestselling book series. Distributor Dynamic Television (Trapped) is pre-selling the series on behalf of Germany’s NDF and Denmark’s Nordisk Film. TV2 Denmark is attached and a German broadcaster will soon be announced. Scherfig said the project is different from classic Scandi noir: “It is a tight, clean crime series reflecting on life outside cities understanding how modernity and social development affect life in the province.” Klaus Zimmermann, Dynamic co-MD, told nordicfilmandtvnews.com: “NDF originally acquired the rights to the books and wanted to make it in the tradition of a German crime series with German actors for an international market. But then we felt it made more sense to make it as an original Danish show with a Danish writer and Danish actors. It’s simply the right way to tell the story.”
Hassel: Speaking to the Nordisk Film & TV Fond about Viaplay’s strategy for coproducing original content for the Nordic region, CEO Jonas Karlén said upcoming original Nordic scripted series on Viaplay include Swedish Dicks, Svartsjön/Black Lake, Hassel, Our Time Is Now and Occupied season two. Hassel is a Nordic noir starring Ola Rapace as the iconic detective created by author Olov Svedelid. The show is produced by Nice Drama in coproduction with Beta Film, which handles global sales, and is due to launch in late 2017.
Spring Tide: Eight brand new Nordic TV dramas have been selected for The Lübeck Festival’s Nordic Film Days. “TV drama is the big new thing. It was time for us to open up our festival to TV series, as Germans are so fond of Nordic noir,” said the festival’s long-time artistic director Linde Fröhlich. Shows to be introduced include Splitting Up Together (DK), Living with my Ex (FI), Trapped (IS), Nobel (NO), and Modus, Hashtag and Spring Tide (SE). The latter crime drama, based on the novel by Rolf and Cilla Börjlind, is about two cops who come together to solve the murder of a pregnant woman. The show is distributed internationally by Endemol Shine International.
Below the Surface: This is a new drama based on an idea by Adam Price (Borgen) and Søren Sveistrup (The Killing) – now principals in Studiocanal-backed firm SAM. The thriller series centres on an operation to rescue 15 hostages from a Copenhagen subway train. Price and Sveistrup said: “There is something both eerie and fascinating about [taking hostages] as a criminal act. The close and complex relationship between the hostage and hostage-taker immediately opens up strong character-development possibilities and can also put a number of highly topical issues about our time to the forefront, such as fear of terrorism.“ The eight-part series has received DKK14m (US$2.08m) in production support from the DFI’s Public Service Fund and will air on Kanal5/Discovery Networks.
Skam: Cult Norwegian youth series Shame (Skam) launched on NRK and was recently acquired by DR3 for Denmark. Danish newspaper Politiken called it “a youth series about high-school life that makes Norway cool for the first time.” Steffen Raastrup, director of DR3, said: “The series’ premise is that when you’re young, you should not be ashamed of who you are but stand up for yourself and deal with the fear that many feel during their formative teen years.” Skam – which is now up to three seasons in Norway and is a strong performer on social media – has also been acquired by SVT in Sweden and RUV in Iceland.
Interference: This is an eight-part English- and French-language sci-fi thriller in development by Stockholm-based Palladium Fiction. Palladium, which is minority-controlled by Sony Pictures Television (SPT), is producing the show alongside Atlantique Productions. SPT is distributing the show internationally. The Palladium team was also behind the critically acclaimed drama Jordskott, and is now working on a second season of the show. Palladium is also developing an English-language project with UK writer/producer Nicola Larder.
Established in 1990 and based in Oslo, the Nordisk Film & TV Fond’s primary purpose is to promote film and TV productions of high quality in the five Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden). It is funded by 17 partners: The Nordic Council of Ministers, five national film institutes/funds and 11 public service and private TV stations within the region. Its annual budget is approximately NOK100m.
Israel’s Keshet International (KI) looks to have achieved another major breakthrough in the scripted formats sector. After In Treatment, Homeland and The A Word (all based on Keshet formats), it has now teamed up with HBO in the US on a drama about the true-life kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers in 2014.
The 10-episode series is the first project to be produced for HBO by its former boss Michael Lombardo, who has a production deal with the network. The creative team behind the show, which will be filmed in Israel, is headed by Hagai Levi and Noah Stollman.
“HBO has always been a home to me. I’m so thrilled to work with them again, and regroup with my good friends from Keshet,” said Levi, who also created hit series The Affair for Showtime.
HBO president Casey Bloys added: “We’re excited to work with Keshet and this talented and creative group led by Hagai Levi. We look forward to sharing this important story with our subscribers.”
The series centres on the disappearance and subsequent search for the three teenagers amid escalating tension and conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. It will be distributed internationally by KI. Avi Nir, the head of KI’s parent company Keshet Media Group, said: “We are thrilled to partner with HBO, the ultimate quality TV powerhouse, and to bring together Israel’s finest in TV and film, led by Hagai Levi, Noah Stollman and Joseph Cedar [the director of the as-yet-unnamed series]. We are all ready for the challenging journey on which this extraordinary story will take us.”
Another interesting story on the format front is NBC’s decision to pilot Infamous, a legal drama based on a 2009 Icelandic series called Réttur. The new version is being written/executive produced by Eli Attie (House) and executive produced by the team behind This Is Us (John Requa and Glenn Ficarra).
Infamous centres on a hotshot attorney who is jailed for a murder he doesn’t remember, and believes he didn’t commit. Six years later, he’s released on a technicality and tries to juggle his day job with finding out what actually happened to put him in jail. The original, created by Sigurjón Kjartansson, ran for three seasons.
Still in the US, ABC is piloting a new series called Protect & Serve. The series centres on a city struggling to cope with the unrest that is stirred up when the police shoot an unarmed man. The show was created by Barbie Kligman and Aaron Kaplan, with Kligman and her husband Billy Malone writing the script.
This seems to be a popular theme for US TV drama at the moment, reflecting the number of high-profile incidents in which controversial police shootings have inspired riots and retaliation. Fox, for example, is working on Shots Fired, a drama that explores the aftermath of racially charged shootings in a Tennessee town.
Also within the ABC family, cable channel Freeform has commissioned a third season of drama series Stitchers. The show hasn’t been a huge hit for Freeform (season two averaged 387,000 per episode) but will provide some stability as Freeform’s top two shows Pretty Little Liars and Switched At Birth move inexorably towards extinction. For those unfamiliar with the show, it focuses on a female hacker who joins a government agency that investigates murders by hacking into the brains of the deceased.
Turning to Europe, UFA Fiction and ZDF began production this week on their new miniseries drama Heaven & Hell – Martin Luther (working title). Marking 500 years since the Reformation, the series tells the story of Martin Luther, the visionary reformer and one of the most important religious figures in history.
Filming commenced in Prague and the surrounding areas and will continue until early December. Executive producers Benjamin Benedict and Joachim Kosack of UFA Fiction said: “The radical perspective on those early days of the Reformation that Heaven & Hell – Martin Luther enables us to portray human inconsistencies, depths and conflicts. This is a story of a group of people alive 500 years ago whose internal convictions led them to forge a new path – one that ultimately changed the world.”
The show is the latest in a line of big-budget coproductions that have tackled pre-20th century European historical subjects. Others include Borgia, Versailles, 1864, Victoria, Maximilian and Marie de Bourgogne, Medici: Masters of Florence and the BBC’s literary adaptations such as Wolf Hall and War & Peace (and the in-development Les Miserables and A Place of Greater Safety) . The new Martin Luther project will be distributed by FremantleMedia International.
There has also been a lot of movement in drama acquisition and distribution business this week. Channel 4 in the UK, for example, has acquired the rights to ABC comedy Black-ish for its digital channel E4.
Dynamic Television, meanwhile, has acquired the global rights to Hulu original series East Los High, which tells the story of a group of inner-city high-school students in LA. Dynamic managing partner Daniel March said: “The series is a game-changer that has completely shattered the bar in the genre. This is a high-powered, emotional drama that speaks to the most sought-after youth audience by tackling everyday challenges.”
Also this week, German, UK and French on-demand services have picked up 12-part Norwegian drama Young & Promising from Nevision-owned distributor About Premium Content. The show, which follows a group of aspirational young urban women, will be streamed on ARD/ZDF-owned Funk in Germany, Channel 4’s Walter Presents in the UK and CanalPlay in France.
Laurent Boissel, joint CEO and co-founder at APC, said: “VoD platforms and broadcasters continue to look for quality drama targeted at millennials. With its strong female leads and a tone that resonates with our time, Young & Promising will appeal to this audience.”
Still in the world of streamers, US-based Acorn is partnering the BBC and All3Media International on Close to the Enemy, a Stephen Poliakoff drama set in a bomb-damaged London hotel in the aftermath of the Second World War. The drama, which Poliakoff discussed during last year’s C21 Drama Summit in London, follows an intelligence officer captain whose last task for the Army is to ensure that a captured German scientist starts working for the British RAF on developing the jet engine.
There’s also good news this week for Dori Media Group, which has licensed acclaimed series El Marginal to French pay TV channel Canal+. Nadav Palti, CEO of Dori Media, said: “Canal+ is a premium pay TV channel that provides its subscribers with access to the highest-quality content. The sale of El Marginal is, therefore, a ringing endorsement of the quality of the show.”
The series focuses on the story of Miguel Dimarco, an ex-cop who enters the San Onofre prison under a false identity as a convict. His mission is to infiltrate a gang of prisoners who have organised the kidnapping of a judge’s daughter. Miguel must discover the whereabouts of the girl and set her free. He meets the objective but someone betrays him, leaving him behind bars with no witnesses who know his true identity.
Martin Ambrosch, the writer behind German crime drama Anatomy of Evil and the forthcoming historical series Maximilian, tells DQ about the challenge of meeting his own ambitions on screen.
As one half of a prolific writer-director partnership, Martin Ambrosch describes himself as a specialist in thrillers.
During his career he has penned episodes of German police procedural Tatort and Austrian crime dramas SOKO Kitzbühel and SOKO Donau.
But it is together with director Andreas Prochaska that Ambrosch brought to life the hit TV movie franchise Anatomy, which airs on ZDF in Germany and ORF in Austria.
The series, which debuted in 2010 with Anatomy of Evil, follows psychologist Richard Brock (played by Heino Ferch) as he is called in by the Vienna police to investigate the murder of a man who was about to stand trial for embezzlement.
Four more films featuring Brock followed – Anatomy of Revenge, Anatomy of Fear, Anatomy of Shame and Anatomy of Surrender, which aired in February – while the sixth in the series, Anatomy of Desire, began filming in February. A seventh instalment is already in development, with production due to begin in November this year.
Anatomy of Evil was subsequently sold to 34 countries by distributor Beta Film, with buyers including Netflix, Rai Cinema in Italy and Antena 3 in Spain. Ambrosch himself won an Austrian TV Romy award for the film, having previously earned a German Grimme award for one of his Tatort episodes.
“It’s a series I came up with. I just proposed it to the producer and the director and we developed a unique story,” Ambrosch says of Anatomy. “It’s a very character-driven story, which I like very much. It’s my child.”
Ambrosch’s partnership with Prochaska also includes the 2014 TV movie Sarajevo, about the events that led to the First World War; mystery western feature film The Dark Valley, which starred Sam Riley (SS-GB); and the forthcoming historical drama Maximilian.
Set in the 15th century in the Austrian Middle Ages, the latter retells the love story between Mary, the orphaned daughter of the ruler of the House of Burgundy, and Maximilian, the son of the Roman Emperor, as they try to survive and rule in the battle for supremacy in Europe.
The three-part miniseries is coproduced by MR Film and Beta Film for ZDF and ORF. It stars Jannis Niewoehner, Christa Théret, Alix Poisson, Jean-Hugues Anlgade and Tobias Moretti.
“Maximilian was very intense,” Ambrosch says. “It was very different from pure fiction because the life of Maximilian is known to many. I had to create my own Maximilian out of his historic personality. It was a challenge but I think we managed it.
“Andreas and I have been colleagues and friends for a long time. We’re both very ambitious, so we knew we could create something really important. It was my first chance to do three 90-minute episodes in a historic setting, so it was a big opportunity for me and I immediately said, ‘Yes, let’s do it.’ I love the historic change between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.”
Ambrosch says he spent a year researching the true story behind Maximilian – but admits there’s a strong element of fiction to the tale viewers will see on screen. “That’s the creativity we wanted to give to the series,” he says. “You can’t just make a documentary. You have to create something that’s close to reality, but it’s bigger than reality and hopefully interesting for viewers.”
Ambrosch’s scripts are also quite detailed, ensuring the cast and director can play out his vision in front of the cameras. “I write it as I see it, and not just dialogue,” he says. “We did readings of the script quite a few times and I was on the set for many days, just watching and getting a feel for every actor.”
The German-language production was complicated by filming several scenes in French, but Ambrosch believes it important that European drama use organic languages to help tell the story. “I speak French but not well enough, so we had a translator,” he says. “I wrote it in German but I have a feeling for the French language because I lived in France for a year, so I know a little bit about it.
“It wasn’t clear at the start in which language we were going to shoot. There was a discussion at the very beginning to maybe shoot everything in English, but then we thought about it some more. I had to write the scripts nonetheless, so I wrote them in German and it was then we decided to shoot in two languages, which is of course a challenge.
“We have regional specialities in Europe. France is quite different from Austria, Germany and England, so it’s interesting to see the differences and get the feeling that Maximilian has to overcome the obstacles when he goes from poor and laid-back Austria to modern Burgundy and the French king with his own politics and lifestyle. It’s much more diverse than just shooting it all in English and saying there’s only one world. Back then it was very different and this is a good opportunity to show that.”
As partnerships go, Ambrosch and Prochaska’s is evidently successful, and Ambrosch credits this to a deep understanding between the pair. “The most important thing is we don’t have to use many words to connect,” he explains.
“We are each other’s biggest critics, so there’s a very open-minded atmosphere. I can tell him what he is doing is bullshit and he tells me what I wrote is bullshit and nobody is pissed off afterwards. That’s very important.
“But it’s also important for me to work with other directors because I don’t want to work only with Andreas. I’m doing a film with Stefan Ruzowitzky right now, the Oscar-winning director of Die Fälscher (The Counterfeiters, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2008). It’s called In Hell (working title).”
Describing his writing style, Ambrosch says he first outlines a treatment before starting his research and writing a few pages “to get my thoughts on paper. After that, I let my mind flow free. You have a huge amount of input when you do a year of research, like I did for Maximilian, and then you start to feel the characters and put it on paper. But when the research is done, you have to throw away a lot of ideas and focus on telling the most important stories. That’s the hardest part. The rest is just fun writing.”
And the biggest challenge facing a writer today? “The challenge is to live up to my own ambitions,” he says.
As television drama continues to draw talent from the feature film industry and proves increasingly capable of rivalling the quality and production values offered by movies, Ambrosch readily admits the standards of the small screen have improved significantly – particularly in Germany, where series such as Cold War saga Deutschland 83 are breaking out as global hits.
“It’s difficult to say but, more often than not, the stories in really good TV movies are much better than the films in the cinema,” he says. “It’s a good time for German drama because there’s some money in the market and there’s a need for these kinds of TV series. There’s no other way than to be as ambitious as the UK and the US. You can’t just go on the way you have for the last 20 or 30 years; you have to adapt, and that’s an opportunity for writers and filmmakers in Germany and Austria.
“There are more opportunities in TV but it’s not so easy because you have to appeal to the viewers of public broadcasters. The young viewers are streaming US and British series and the older ones are used to the existing patterns. You need really good stories that producers will risk money on. The market is changing quickly and I’m very interested in where it’s all going to end.”
Subtitles are now a familiar element of many TV dramas, but how are languages changing the stories we watch and the way these shows are made?
Across the world, audiences have become much more relaxed about watching imported foreign-language content. The launch of Channel 4’s global drama platform Walter Presents in January this year was a particular sign of the UK’s new tolerance for subtitles.
But beyond audiences watching dramas from other countries, it is notable how many series now combine multiple languages, such as Netflix drama Narcos, which blends English and Spanish to tell the story of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.
Another example is Canadian series Blood and Water, which is described as a compelling, character-driven crime drama that delves into the secrets and lies of a tight-knit family. The show, which is produced by Breakthrough Entertainment for Omni Television, stands out because it was produced in English, Mandarin and Cantonese.
Nataline Rodrigues, director of original programming for Omni parent Rogers, explains: “Different characters speak in all three languages organically throughout the show. Chinese subtitles are featured when English is spoken and English subtitles appear when Chinese is spoken so the widest possible audience can watch and follow the show.
“We wanted a cross-cultural series for Omni that would resonate with a wider multigenerational and diverse audience. The premise of exploring family secrets allowed for a very relatable and fertile story world that would attract a wider audience – drawing viewers in and keeping them there with a crime story with real twists and turns.”
One of the starting points for the spate of TV series now blending languages was Bron/Broen (aka The Bridge), the crime drama that brought police officers Sweden and Denmark together to solve a murder after a body is found on the Øresund Bridge, which links the two countries.
“The unusual thing with The Bridge is it didn’t start out as a creative idea, it started out as a question. We had difficulties getting into the Danish market. Swedish broadcasters were airing everything Danish but the Danish broadcasters never aired anything Swedish, so we asked ourselves how we could cheat our way into Denmark,” recalls executive producer and Filmlance MD Lars Blomgren. “We sat down with the head of (Swedish pubcaster) SVT and tried to work out a crime drama that organically moved between the two countries because it could be in Danish in Denmark and in Swedish in Sweden. That’s how it all started.”
Seizing the chance to have a drama in two languages, where viewers in Denmark had subtitles for dialogue in Swedish and vice versa, made The Bridge part of a “new era” where the acceptance of subtitles is growing around the world, Blomgren adds.
Three different versions of the script were produced – a Swedish one, a Danish copy and a mixed version. And that’s just one example of the logistical challenges that Blomgren says make cross-border productions as “very difficult.”
He continues: “The upside is the creative side. We’re all interested in our neighbours and we can relate to the differences between the cultures. That’s good for the storytelling. And it’s also good for broadcasters because instead of one broadcaster paying 60% of the budget, you can have two broadcasters paying 30% each so it’s win-win for everyone.
“But it’s also very delicate because you don’t want it to become a Europudding. You don’t want to start bringing in actors just because they’re of a nationality that would bring more money to the table. It’s quite easy to do cross-border for solely financial reasons and we’re trying to stay away from that.”
The Bridge went on to have two adaptations. The first, commissioned by US cable channel FX, transplanted the story to the US-Mexico border, using English and Spanish, and ran for two seasons. The second remake began underwater, at the midpoint of the Channel Tunnel between England and France. Produced by Endemol Shine Group-owned Filmlance’s sister company Kudos (Humans, Broadchurch), The Tunnel was a coproduction between Sky Atlantic in the UK and France’s Canal+. Season one aired in 2013 and season two, called The Tunnel 2: Sabotage, is now on air in Britain.
Having screened The Bridge before it became an international hit and inspired by the idea of exploring Anglo-French relations, Kudos picked up the format for adaptation. But once the show did become a global success, the creative team was wary of leaning too much on the original.
“It was such a good show, it was pointless trying to imitate it. It would have been very uncreative and that’s not how we make programmes,” says Kudos exec producer Manda Levin. “We tried to take the concept and the compass points of the story but, within that, we felt we had to find our own way with it.
“These days with British crime drama, whatever you make, you’re constantly told you’re aping Scandi noir. I find that really frustrating because it’s a lazy way of grouping stories that are visceral, dark and melancholy and saying they’re all borrowing from the same source. Britain’s always had a tradition of making bleak but spiky and interesting crime drama. I didn’t feel that was what we were trying to do. We wanted to make it very French in its own way and very British with the humour.”
The use of language was also important for The Tunnel’s creative team, with Levin asserting that the days of actors speaking English in “funny accents” are long gone.
“Sky Atlantic and Canal+ are ambitious art house channels that you would hope have an audience that’s happy to deal with subtitles,” she says. “For me, those scenes in which the characters are slipping into French and English are the best parts. We always try to say The Tunnel was the first fundamentally bilingual series in the UK. It definitely felt pioneering when we started, although now international drama has become so accessible to audiences, it’s nice to see many more subtitles on mainstream channels than there used to be. There’s been a real shift in what drama commissioners are prepared to commission and what audiences are prepared to watch.”
Following the success of The Bridge, which has run to three seasons with the possibility of a fourth to come, Filmlance’s Blomgren says he has been approached about other series with a cross-border dynamic: “But in so many cases you feel it’s just a construction to finance the production, and that’s not the right way to do it. One border is enough. Once you bring in too many characters from too many nations, you can’t dig deep into characters because you have too many and it’s a very difficult game.”
However, one series that did bring together characters from a number of different nations is The Team, a pan-European crime drama that unites a team of police officers who fight crime throughout the continent.
Created by Peter Thorsboe and Mai Brostrøm (The Eagle, Modus), the series is shot in original languages with a cast headed by Lars Mikkelsen, Jasmin Great and Veerle Baetens. It is produced by Network Movie for ZDF in association with DR and distributed by ZDF Enterprises.
Wolfgang Feind, head of series and international coproductions at ZDF, says the idea for The Team was born out of a desire to follow up The Eagle, in which an Icelandic protagonist pursues criminals across Europe.
“The unique selling point is that The Team is a truly European series in which an organic cast investigates real cases and scours all of Europe to snare the criminals,” he says. “What also makes the programme unique is the use of multiple languages – the immersion in original languages, whether Flemish, Danish, German or European English, is what keeps the investigators connected to one another.”
Although having characters speak in their native language added to the authenticity of the series, Feind says it was not without its challenges. “The implementation of different languages was easy; the challenge for the production consisted rather of the how, when and where our protagonists encounter one another,” he reveals.
“We believe there is a trend to break down all linguistic barriers. Young people today want to watch TV series in their original version. Dubbing stopped convincing them long ago. And let’s face it – it is the reality of our lives that language changes. We mix English and German into ‘Denglish.’ We borrow words from other languages, we make up new terms. We’re creating world-spanning communication in the digital age with all these new forms of language.”
Another Sky-Canal+ coproduction to use multiple languages is The Last Panthers, starring Samantha Morton, John Hurt, Tahar Rahim and Goran Bogdan. The six-part series, produced by Warp Films and Haut et Court, tells a fictional story based on the notorious real-life Pink Panther jewel thieves. It opens with a daring heist before delving into the dark heart of a Europe ruled by a shadowy alliance of gangsters and bankers.
With the action taking place across the UK, France and Serbia, the script called for characters to speak in the corresponding languages. And writer Jack Thorne says this process was not simply about translating his scripts – he also sought a better understanding of the countries in which the action was set.
“The difficult thing was understanding that there are very big cultural differences in how things operate in different countries,” he says. “The French legal system is one of the most complicated systems I’ve ever come across. I was constantly trying to work out who does what in different situations, why certain people can do certain things, and also trying to make that translatable.
“There were other differences to take on board – spending time in Serbia and understanding what Serbian nationalism means and where it comes from. That was a very alien concept to me as a British person but it’s a very different country with a very different history to ours. It’s a country that’s been invaded by every empire that’s ever existed and has had to fight for its identity, so it has a very different sense of itself.”
One multilingual show that moves away from the ‘neighbour’ dynamic of The Bridge and The Tunnel is Jour Polaire (aka Midnight Sun), which sees a French policeman sent to Sweden to investigate the death of a French citizen.
The series’ roots can be found in the partnership between former Atlantique Productions exec Patrick Nebout and Nice Drama’s Henrik Jansson-Schweizer, who developed the plot together more than four years ago. But it was only when writers Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein came on board that it gained traction and was subsequently commissioned by SVT and France’s Canal+.
“You’ve seen a lot of Scandi-German coproductions but you’ve never seen Scandi-French coproductions,” Nebout says. “We felt the timing was right; we knew Canal+ was looking for something to do with Scandinavia. We approached Canal+ and SVT with the idea and both reacted positively from the beginning.”
The mixture of languages used in the series was also important to Nebout, who wanted to keep the series “organic.”
“We have a French cop in Sweden. She should be speaking English when she interacts with the Swedes but when the Swedes talk to each other, they should definitely speak their own language. And when our French cop is reporting back to Paris, she should do that in French,” he explains. “That came to us very naturally. We didn’t want to do something completely in English, because that wasn’t part of the story.
“There’s also a fourth language in the series, Sami. Because of the show’s setting in the far north of Sweden, there are many indigenous Sami characters and they speak their language. It felt very natural. Måns wanted to tell a story about Europe today and we felt it echoed well to have these different languages.”
Jour Polaire also features Arabic, taking the number of languages to five.
The script began in Swedish, before it was translated into English and then French. But why did the producers not want to film it entirely in English, as Atlantique had done previously with Borgia – the papal drama set in Italy?
“It made sense to do Borgia in English because it was a very specific and confined environment with characters that were all in the same culture and universe,” explains Nebout, who left Atlantique to launch his own production company Dramacorp. “When Atlantique did Transporter, that was in English because it was targeted at the English-language market. It’s very international storytelling – it’s an action series.
“A couple of years ago, English was a must if you wanted to enable global export. But at the same time we can see tolerance for subtitled shows is growing all over the place – in France, the UK. And it seems it’s coming to the US, where SundanceTV and other channels are starting to air foreign-language shows.”
If there’s one programme that built its production schedule around the use of multiple languages, it’s Welsh drama Y Gwyll (aka Hinterland, pictured top). The crime series, which has been renewed for a third season, airs in a Welsh-only format on commissioning broadcaster S4C.
But to maximise the opportunity for distribution sales, it was filmed back-to-back in English as well, to create an English-only version and also a bilingual edition. BBC Wales aired the bilingual version, which was also picked up by BBC4.
Gwawr Martha Lloyd, S4C’s drama commissioner, says there were two reasons for producing multiple versions of the same series. First, S4C wanted as many people as possible to be able to watch it, and second, bringing coproducers on board meant a bigger budget that could accommodate higher production values.
“It sounds simpler than it is,” she admits. “It’s quite testing for everybody involved, especially the actors because they have to learn double the words and their performance can vary depending on what language they’re speaking so it’s not literally exactly the same. How you would express yourself in Welsh is quite different to how you would in English. But in production terms, Hinterland isn’t heavy on dialogue, so some things they don’t have to film twice, like scenery or chase sequences.”
But what of the process of combining Welsh and English into a single format? Lloyd says the production team first decided which characters would only speak one language.
“A lot of characters live in remote rural areas so it was easy to believe they’d all speak Welsh together in the BBC Wales/BBC4 version,” she says. “They explored what was credible, what contributed to this mythical feeling that’s created when you’re in this setting. The protagonist is from London so had to speak English. And his colleagues speak Welsh to each other but change when he walks into the room. They had to figure all of that out and also which of the locals would speak Welsh to each other or English.”
Lloyd points to BBC1’s The Missing as another good example of a drama using multiple languages. The show, about a man’s search for his missing son, mixed English and French, as the pair are on holiday in France when the child vanishes.
“They used language very cleverly because sometimes they used subtitles when the characters spoke French, but when they wanted the father (played by James Nesbitt) out of the conversation and to make him frustrated that he didn’t know what was going on, they didn’t use subtitles. That was really clever because it made viewers feel like he felt.
“It was really exciting because it added another dimension that you wouldn’t have had if it was all in the same language.”
S4C is now developing a number of new multi-language dramas that Lloyd says reflect the nature of language in Wales. “I feel a desire to do something that’s multilingual. I’ve enjoyed multilingual dramas over the last few years and we’re in a position where we can do this because of the nature of language in our country. It’s definitely an ambition to get one of those away but we’ll have to see which one or how many.”
While this may be a relatively new path in certain territories, Israeli dramas commonly use multiple languages. Distributor Keshet International’s slate includes several examples, most notably espionage thrillers False Flag (Hebrew and English) and MICE (Russian and Hebrew), plus Arab Labor (Arabic and Hebrew), a comedy-drama that explores the Arab-Jewish cultural divide.
“It has to come naturally from the story,” says Karni Ziv, head of drama for Keshet Media Group. “If either part of the story or the way the character lives is based on a foreign language or culture, it has to be part of it. MICE is about Russian immigrants who live in Israel, so they speak Russian to each other. The most important thing is it reflects real life and Israel’s melting-pot society.”
The use of different languages means Keshet dramas are also finding audiences abroad. “Audiences now are more open to stories from different territories,” Ziv says. “Five or six years ago, language was something that made a difference. Nowadays, you don’t really hear the language. When we discovered very good television from Scandinavia, I ignored the language. I don’t really hear it, as I’m so focused on the story and characters. We are more open now to hearing different languages if it’s part of a brilliant story.”
Midnight Sun’s Nebout notes a common plot device threading these series together – a leading character in a strange place, which puts their language at odds with their location. “The easy thing with these shows is you have a fish out of water so you have a good argument to decide you’re going to shoot in different languages,” he says. “As you can see with The Tunnel and The Bridge, more and more shows are using a mixture of languages. For Europe it makes sense.”
It’s a sign of both broadcasters’ and audiences’ openness to subtitles that multi-language dramas are now commonplace – and that can only encourage an increasingly global production sector to introduce viewers to more diverse and unfamiliar stories in the future.
There’s no exact science to creating a hit drama, but there are certainly plenty of things you can do to improve your odds. DQ hears from some of the best in the business.
As the old world of TV transitions to the new, the rules around what constitutes a hit have clearly changed.
Take Fox’s Empire as an example. The series, which made its debut only last year and has already been renewed for a third season, is an undeniable ‘hit’ in the traditional sense. However, for all that Fox may trumpet the show’s record-breaking viewing figures, overnight ratings are increasingly looking like a dying barometer of success in the age of video-on-demand.
“Everybody is holding on to the Bronze Age of television in America, so everybody wants to claim their show is a hit. But there isn’t a monitoring system yet that can say whether something is a hit,” says Simon Mirren, one of the UK’s most successful executive producers and writers.
“Amazon or Netflix can say one of their shows is a hit, but you don’t know if it really is because you don’t know how many people are watching it,” says Mirren, who recently oversaw the glossy period drama Versailles for Canal+ in France.
Of course, Netflix and Amazon’s tight lips have ensured their dramas aren’t burdened by talk of ratings. But with that has come perhaps an even bigger pressure for them to push their series into public conversation, lest they wallow unwatched in the streamers’ libraries.
The increasing irrelevance of overnights has meant producers, creators and showrunners are having to rely on other evidence to conclude whether they’ve created a hit, both in the real world and online.
“When I’m walking around and people tap on my shoulder and say that the show is great, then I can feel it,” says veteran television producer Peter Nadermann, a former exec at German public broadcaster ZDF who is famous for bringing Scandinavian coproductions The Killing and The Bridge to wider audiences.
Of course, every time a producer picks up a new script, it’s in the hope they might be about to read the next Downton Abbey or Breaking Bad. But the reality is that, in the overwhelming majority of cases, they won’t. “As a producer, we’re shepherding 15 projects that could all be hits. So you live in this slightly naive world where they might all be successful but really you know they won’t, as a hit is so rare,” says Justin Thomson-Glover, founding director of UK coproduction specialist Far Moor Media.
But, in exceptional circumstances, the script might be so good that producers can afford to feel pretty confident. In the case of BBC detective series The Fall (pictured top), which Thomson-Glover executive produced and subsequently saw get picked up around the world the signs were there from the beginning.
“When the script for The Fall came in and the female script editors reading it were too scared to walk home and had to get cabs, you knew there was something special about it,” he says.
The producer’s suspicions were confirmed after the first episode aired on BBC2 in May 2013, when the series’ male lead Jamie Dornan, then a relatively unknown Northern Irish actor, became an overnight star. “There was such a huge amount of tweeting and such momentum that you knew it would carry on in the UK and go international,” Thomson-Glover recalls.
But Dornan was only cast at the insistence of show creator Allan Cubitt, who had to go out on a limb to make sure he got his man. This highlights the importance of putting trust in your creators, Thomson-Glover says.
Mirren says there are other reasons producers can feel quietly assured in the early stages that all the hard work will result in something bigger than the sum of its parts. “I don’t want say this with arrogance, but I’ve worked with some good people and on a number of hit shows. When I was on Criminal Minds, there was a feeling that it might be a hit,” reveals the showrunner, who worked on the crime drama for six years.
Although Mirren dismisses the notion that you can reverse-engineer a hit in any way, he insists your chances will greatly improve if you have the right people around you.
As a showrunner on Criminal Minds, writing a decent episode was only the start of the battle, remembers the former plasterer, who compares overseeing a series to being part of a highly dysfunctional family.
“You’re dealing with the outline, treatment, a first draft, a second draft, a problem with the network, an actor who doesn’t like his trailer, someone’s punched somebody, someone’s lost their thumb…” he says. “I’ve got a hundred horror stories. That’s the point when you find out if you’ve got the mettle to bring this train into the right station, because it is a train.
“The best you can be is determined by the people you have around you. So you have to find a great first director and people around you who can help you get through everything, because there’s so much to deal with.”
Having arrived on the CBS series after the departure of creator Jeff Davis and with a stint producing the Eye Network’s Without a Trace under his belt, Mirren applied his experience of using a formula to the fledgling crime drama.
“We were sitting there without a bible, no anything. So I said we’ve just got to come up with a formula that the other writers can stick their jacket onto,” Mirren remembers.
Out of that came Criminal Minds’ episode structure, which begins with someone meeting a grisly end, followed by the investigation unit coming in, someone else being targeted, red herrings being added here and there, and so on.
As someone who has an overall deal with a US studio (Universal), Mirren is well aware he might have to join a show that he doesn’t actually like, although he stresses this hasn’t yet been the case.
For Nadermann, who spent 13 years at ZDF before setting up NADCON with Constantin Film, one of Germany’s best-known production companies, being able to pick his projects is paramount: “I have this weakness that means I strictly only do what I personally like.”
Trusting his gut is key, so Nadermann takes a very simple approach to what he thinks will get a response from viewers: “I’m not atypical. The things I like, such as football and Netflix, other people like too. So if I like it, other people probably will as well. I have a very close relationship with certain TV executives who believe in my work and give me a certain freedom. I’ve chosen to work very internationally, because it gives me much more freedom.”
Nadermann isn’t joking when he says he has a taste for the international. His latest copro, The Team, was made with the participation of eight different public broadcasters across Europe.
Some would immediately label a project with that many different partners on board, all likely pitching in with different ideas, as a sure-fire ‘Europudding,’ which unfortunately is not as tasty as it sounds. But Nadermann used his experience to try to ensure the project was as uncomplicated editorially as possible, despite the number of different partners. The executive producer told each party it would not be possible to do a show with eight channels interfering and emphasised that he needed their trust to make the series a success.
The Team portrays a group of European police officers fighting international crime throughout Europe, and thus naturally features multiple languages, including French, Danish, German and English. Nadermann believes that, rather than act as a deterrent to the audience, this helped attract attention to the series in Germany.
“Programmes have to have an aura about them so that the audience gets a sense of a special energy. The industry is constantly underestimating viewers and I try not to do that. With The Team, there were a lot of things that were new, and people like that,” he says.
Another important factor in The Team’s local success, says the exec, was the way it was distributed, with every episode arriving on ZDF’s on-demand service prior to its linear broadcast, à la Netflix: “We added a lot of younger viewers who would not have seen it on ZDF. It was the first time the audience realised ZDF is like a Netflix for free. It will be crucial for all TV stations to develop their online platforms because in the future you will have a modern viewer who wants both.”
There’s also an element of serendipity in whether a show goes on to become a hit. Nadermann points to the forthcoming Havana Quartet (working title) series he has in development with US cable channel Starz based on Leonardo Padura’s Havana detective novels, a project that may have been aided by President Obama’s efforts to improve relations between the States and Cuba.
“I bought the rights to books by a Cuban crime writer as I was convinced that a crime series in Havana would be very interesting,” says Nadermann, describing it as “Wallander in the sun.”
He continues: “Then you have to sell it and find people who believe in your vision. It’s not all in the writing. It’s everything together, the talent, directors and cast. Then you need a little luck, which in this case was the Americans being interested in Cuba.”
For a director, there really is no other option but to trust gut instinct. “You never know,” says Anand Tucker, who launched London-based drama company Seven Stories alongside Jo McClellan, Sharon Maguire and Colleen Woodcock last year.
Tucker and Maguire’s credits include Hilary & Jackie, Shopgirl, Girl with a Pearl Earring, Bridget Jones’s Diary and Red Riding 1983, while Tucker directed the opening episodes of last year’s first season of Channel 4 series Indian Summers.
“It begins the moment you read the script – you have to trust your voice,” Tucker says. “This has been my lesson. It doesn’t matter what you’re making, whether it’s a five-minute short or a commercial. If there’s one thing that doesn’t feel right and you ignore that voice, it’ll come back and it’ll fuck you so badly. You have to trust that.”
Indeed, it’s easier to list the don’ts than the do’s when it comes to trying to create a successful scripted series. “It’s a bit like marriage. If you marry the wrong wife, you can work hard on it, but it will never be a great relationship. It’s the same if you pick the wrong writer,” says Nadermann.
But although writer and producer may come first, the director should not be forgotten, says Tucker, who has fallen foul of over-zealous producers in the past. “At some point, you have to have the confidence and courage to trust the director. In my experience, the problems have always come when producers try to hold on to the bar of soap too hard.”
But imagine everything goes swimmingly, with the right talent both on and off screen and a first season that ticks all the boxes. How do you sustain that kind of success? That could be the hardest nut to crack of all.
Take HBO’s True Detective, which saw a substantial decline in both critical and audience response for its second season compared with its universally acclaimed first. Various reasons have been offered for its underwhelming sophomore run, from the change in cast to it being rushed to screen. But both Mirren and Nadermann agree the series suffered as a result of the writer, Nic Pizzolatto, being given too much freedom.
“There have been times where I’ve watched shows and thought the writer has too much power, that he’s fallen in love with his own ego and everybody is too frightened to stop him,” says Mirren.
Nadermann, meanwhile, believes the importance of director Cary Fukunaga, who oversaw all eight episodes of True Detective’s first season but played no part in the second, was “underestimated.”
“Every project is different. You can have extraordinary writing, but then you change director,” he adds. “Then you have other shows where you have miscast and it doesn’t work. There are always different doors you have to watch.”
Clearly, there’s an intricate dance that must be performed by all players involved in getting a scripted series to screen. And only when they are dancing in time can they properly avoid those trap doors.
Klaus Zimmermann and Clive Bradley reveal how they kept crime thriller Trapped grounded in its Icelandic setting while navigating the tricky waters around this intricate international coproduction.
While international coproductions perhaps no longer seem the terrifying prospect they once were, the story of how Trapped came to air may still send shivers down the spines of some television executives.
With nine different broadcast partners on board, making the series – created by renowned director Baltasar Kormákur (Everest) – looks a frightening task from the outside. But executive producer Klaus Zimmermann (Borgia) and writer Clive Bradley (The Killing Gene) say those fears are misplaced, as all partners worked together to create an authentic Icelandic drama that takes the popularity of Nordic Noir into new territory.
The 10-part series opens with snow falling as a ferry from Denmark pulls into a small Icelandic port. With 300 passengers stranded until the storm passes and with the main road into town impassable, a mutilated and dismembered body washes up on the shore – leaving a local police chief convinced a killer has arrived. As word of the death spreads, order descends into chaos as the ferry’s passengers and the town’s residents realise they are all possible suspects and that a killer is trapped among them.
Produced by RVK Studios and distributed by Dynamic Television, Trapped stars Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Bjarne Henriksen, Ingvar E Sigurðsson, Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir, Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir and Björn Hlynur Haraldsson.
Zimmermann joined the show in 2013 when Kormákur approached him with a project that he couldn’t get off the ground.
“I looked at the material he had worked on and the general idea was already there,” Zimmermann explains. “I took on the development and started to look for a team of writers who could make this more international without breaking the authentic charm of the show.
“Besides the original Icelandic writer, I identified Clive, with whom I’ve worked before. We went to Iceland and worked from scratch by imagining what a show needed to please an international audience. It took us a while to go back to the material, to develop the strong story arcs and strong characters, and after two months we had a new script.”
Several broadcasters had already turned down the project but, undeterred, Zimmermann went back to them with the new script. Germany’s ZDF joined as a coproducer, with plans to air the show in its popular Sunday evening Nordic Noir slot. France Télévisions also came on board, followed by the BBC.
They joined Iceland’s RUV, SVT in Sweden, DR and DRK in Denmark and Finland’s YLE, while The Weinstein Company took rights for the US.
Trapped launched in Iceland in December 2015 to a 90% share of the audience – the biggest in the country’s TV history. Launches followed in Norway in January and France and the UK in February this year, while March saw the show’s arrival in Sweden and Denmark. The German debut is set for this autumn.
“The idea was never to make an international show set in Iceland, like Sky did with Fortitude,” Zimmermann says. “We wanted to do something that specifically made the audience come to Iceland and witness how people live, what the troubles are; to create a really authentic drama.”
Trapped had originally been plotted in Icelandic, the language in which the show is filmed. But an English treatment was written up and sent to Bradley. He then wrote the script in English as part of a mini writers room that also included Zimmermann, French writer Sonia Moyersoen and the original Icelandic writer Sigurjón Kjartansson – who translated the finished scripts back into Icelandic for filming.
Bradley, who describes joining the project as a “no-brainer,” explains: “Klaus set up a fantastic system where, after I wrote two episodes, we’d meet for a week and plan the next two, and then I’d go away and write them in English.
“Sigurjón was always the one to check what I wrote. In my first draft, I had some people with umbrellas because the weather was terrible – but apparently people in Iceland don’t use umbrellas. There were other interesting points, like if you write that a cop goes home and has a glass of whisky – well, no, he doesn’t in Iceland. Instead, he has a glass of milk, which is a lovely detail. Because it was an Icelandic project in the first place and because of Sigurjón’s involvement, we were always grounded in Icelandic reality.”
Zimmermann adds: “We worked out the stories together and then Clive would execute the script. We would all comment on that and once the English script was finished, it was translated into Icelandic by Sigurjón. There were some changes because of the translation. Icelanders speak with fewer words – there’s one scene where there’s a big drama and lots of dialogue and the actor just makes a ‘hmm’ noise. This is the translation, but it works.”
Despite the number of broadcast partners, Zimmermann says the success of the series’ development came down to the amount of time the four-strong creative team spent in the writers room. “We had eight months to write 10 scripts, in a team of four with Clive doing the writing,” he says. “Every two months we spent the week together and two or three times we went to a small cabin in Iceland. In the evening we watched TV shows and in the daytime we plotted terrible things happening in Iceland.
“This atmosphere and working structure is part of how this project was generated. The show has a very nice pace. It starts slow but it picks up more and more speed, and in every second episode there is something happening you wouldn’t have imagined – someone jumping out of a helicopter or an avalanche coming down on the village, for example. Hopefully the audience will wonder what will happen to the town and the hero in the next episode because they’ll be thinking it can’t possibly be more terrible than what has already happened.
“It was quite an unusual development process but it’s an encouraging example of how television works today where you have a very original story, setting and a solid first script, with everything you expect for a primetime drama. In Iceland the production process is terribly complicated but the price is quite competitive. Part of the equation was that we weren’t asking broadcasters for a fortune. We were asking for a reasonable proportion of the risk to be taken by several parties at the same time, and that’s how the budget slowly came together.”
Costing more than double the average production in the country, Trapped wasn’t cheap by Icelandic standards but Zimmermann says the results justify the outlay: “A normal Icelandic production can be produced for as little as €300,000 (US$326,200) an hour, and this is more than €750,000 – but the standard of the production is comparable to any high-end Scandinavian drama.
“The reason for that is the production company behind this is owned by Baltasar, who is mainly a feature film director and only works to the highest quality standards available. So the equipment was top, there was enough time to produce and some of the actors have international careers. The lead actor, Ólafur, is working with Steven Spielberg on The BFG so it’s the crème de la crème of Iceland on screen.”
Key to getting the broadcasters on board was convincing them Trapped would be unlike anything they had seen before, and the combination of Kormákur’s back catalogue, the Icelandic setting and Zimmermann’s experience in international drama completed the package.
“They were not commissioning broadcasters. Their level of commitment was below the commission, with less control, but the process was still very collaborative,” says Zimmermann, revealing how the broadcasters fell into the production process together.
“The director does his cut, I give my input. You send it to a few of the broadcasters and you get a feel for who wants to be more involved. A channel like BBC4 expects something authentic. It doesn’t have the infrastructure to be hands-on, so it relies on the mechanic to work.
“ZDF, however, was very hands on. The slot where it wanted to air Trapped is very competitive. We also had a lot of discussions with France Télévisions, which has similar needs for its audience. It came to rough-cut screenings, so that was the heart of the process in the end.
“We had some difficult moments, especially when things became very Icelandic. We had a comment on the first rough cut where someone said there was too much snow. The weather starts to get very bad after the first 10 minutes because the village is trapped by an ice storm, so there’s really terrible weather in the rest of the episode.
“The first reaction was, ‘We can’t have all this snow,’ but it looks fantastic with the effects, sound and music. We had to go through that process of saying this is a winter show, an Icelandic show.”
For Bradley, Trapped marked his first venture into a writers room, and he says he would happily repeat the process – perhaps during season two, which is under discussion. “The four of us would be in the writers room for several days. In the UK, you don’t do that. More and more projects are starting to have a version of the American writers room but it’s still quite rare. It was the first time I’d done anything like that. Rather than spend several hours with producers and script editors, spending days thrashing out the details was one of many things about the experience that I want to repeat.
“It’s an incredibly productive way of proceeding with developing a story. I’d never done 10 hours before and it’s amazing having that length of time. Obviously you have to find a story to fill it but to then have characters you can develop compared with an hour-and-a-half running time, it’s a great experience.”
A Dangerous Fortune director Christian Schwochow and producer Robin von der Leyen tell Michael Pickard why Ken Follett’s novel was perfect for an adaptation.
Dublin is making a habit of doubling for Victorian-era London. From crime drama Ripper Street to horror Penny Dreadful, the Irish capital has become a popular filming location for 19th century period dramas thanks to its narrow lanes and surviving period architecture.
More recently, it became home to the production of Die Pfeiler der Macht (A Dangerous Fortune), an adaptation of Ken Follett’s best-selling novel for German broadcaster ZDF.
Described as a story of love, greed, power and politics, it follows Hugh Pilaster (Dominic Thorburn), the son of a banker who is orphaned by his father and left at the mercy of his beautiful but power-hungry aunt Augusta.
Hugh and his best friend Solly (Albrecht Schuch) both fall in love with working-class Maisie (Laura de Boer) – but when Solly proposes to Maisie, Hugh leaves for America. Six years later, he returns rich and successful, only to find his feelings for Maisie haven’t changed.
Directed by Christian Schwochow (The Tower), the three-hour miniseries is produced by Kerstin Schmidbauer, Robin von der Leyen and Wolfgang Cimera for Constantin Television and Network Movie. Global Screen is distributing the drama worldwide.
“Making the film was one of the most spectacular and intense experiences of my working life,” Schwochow recalls. “We lived in Dublin for five or six months. I worked with an amazing Irish crew. Everyone had very impressive CVs and had worked on international productions before. Just three or four people came with me from Germany, including my director of photography, and some actors. Living in Dublin, working in Dublin was fantastic. It was a wonderful experience.”
Location scouting took place all over Europe, taking in Prague, Belgium and parts of England. But Constantin Film had previously set up in Dublin – for 2014 feature film Love, Rosie – and von der Leyen was keen to revisit the city.
“We had an excellent experience with the crew in Ireland,” he says. “The tax credit is also very attractive, but we chose Ireland because you really get the feeling of London of the late 19th century. It was much more authentic shooting on the locations there. All that together made it very easy to go to Ireland. We had a great experience there. We would definitely love to go back sometime.”
A Dangerous Fortune was the result of a 10-year development deal between the producers to build a slate of Follett adaptations. The first results were seen in 2010’s Eisfieber, based on the novel Whiteout, before focus switched to A Dangerous Fortune three years ago.
“What’s special about Ken Follett is the richness of his stories,” Schwochow says. “When you open his books, you’re drawn into a world that’s so colourful and so precisely described because he puts so much effort into the research.
“Of course, there’s a lot of imagination and creativity in the storytelling but, on the other hand, the characters and the setting are so rich. It’s a great pleasure finding such strong, rich and colourful poetic material.”
In particular, the director describes A Dangerous Fortune as a gift for filmmakers: “You open the script and you drown in a world that is completely unknown and very rich because you have so many settings. You have the world of the rich, noble people and the poor – it’s like a big playground. And you have characters who, even though they live in a very distant period, feel so close.
“In a way it’s a story about young people trying to find a different way in life from their parents and the difficulties, and the struggle to find your own identity in a world that seems very free and open but actually has lots of limits and boundaries. That’s what I found very interesting and is something that comes back again and again in my films.”
American writer Annette Simon penned the scripts, working with Schwochow to create a vision of Victorian London that avoided the serious tones often adopted by other period dramas.
“Telling the story in a very naturalistic, realistic way isn’t something that interests me so much,” Schwochow admits. “Too many stories from the Victorian period are told in a very serious way and I tried to find a way with Annette to go over the top.
“You find so many crazy things when you start investigating the Victorian period – the way people acted, how they communicated – there was so much pretending and hiding of the truth. And this is why we tried to find a style that’s more fairytale, crazy and over the top.”
Though many European dramas with international ambitions choose to shoot in English – Borgia being just one example – the production team decided A Dangerous Fortune would air in German, even though some of the actors spoke English on set, with their lines later being dubbed into German.
Von der Leyen explains: “If you shoot abroad, you usually have the main cast you bring from home and all other roles you cast locally. In this case, we had them speaking in their native language so they knew what they were saying. If they spoke German, then they wouldn’t have understood what they were saying and their acting wouldn’t match what they were saying. So we decided this would make more sense and give the cast the chance to give it their best. We were very happy about the decision.”
Schwochow, who is attached to direct Letterbox Filmproducktion’s finance miniseries Bad Banks for ZDF and Arte this fall, continues: “Everybody spoke their mother language – in one scene, Dominic would speak English and the German actor would speak German.
“Because you can’t rely on the language, you have to have actors who understand that they have to listen to and look at each other, to find eye contact with each other and help each other. Dominic always knew what the scene was about and we even tried a little bit of improv. It was different from when you have actors who speak the same language but it was very easy.
“It got more difficult when I had to find the German voices for the dubbing. That process was more intense than finding Dominic.”
The cast also contributed to the cheerful mood on set, which Schwochow describes as one of the aspects of the production of which he is most proud.
“After the second shooting day we were a big creative family and no matter if people had seen my work or worked with Ridley Scott or Steven Spielberg, they were giving everything,” he says. “There was a great partnership between the German, Irish and English actors.
“And even though we had a very tight schedule, shooting in just 49 days, we worked so well that we didn’t feel in a hurry. We had an open creative atmosphere. The whole production felt very free and open-minded with not much pressure. I’m very happy it went this way.”
Praise is also reserved for Irish costume designer Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh, whose work contributed to the high production values afforded by the €8m (US$9m) budget.
“The opulence of what you can see, the costumes, the locations – that’s something we’re proud of,”adds von der Leyen. “We had a great crew.”
Andreas Prochaska, director of Austrian period drama Maximilian, reveals the challenges of realising an epic, action-packed script while sticking to a strict budget.
Andreas Prochaska is under no illusions: he is facing the biggest challenge of his career. The Austrian director is a multiple award winner in his home country and in Germany for his work behind the camera, most notably claiming an International Emmy in 2013 for TV movie Das Wunder von Kärnten (A Day for a Miracle) and several best director gongs for 2014 feature film Das Finstere Tal (The Dark Valley).
His focus is now on Maximilian, a €15.5m (US$17.5m) television drama in production for MR Film, Beta Film, Austrian broadcaster ORF and German network ZDF. Set in 1477 in the Austrian Middle Ages, the three-part miniseries retells the love story between Mary, the orphaned daughter of the ruler of the House of Burgundy, and Maximilian, the son of the Roman Emperor, set against a backdrop of politics and power struggles.
It stars Jannis Niewoehner, Christa Théret, Alix Poisson, Jean-Hugues Anlgade and Tobias Moretti.
“I got a phone call three or four years ago about a project about Hapsburg and the founding of the empire,” Prochaska (pictured second from left in the main image) recalls. “I was immediately interested in being part of it because I think it’s a great European story and a great love story, and you have all the ingredients for a big TV production – love, politics, elements of a thriller and a bit of action. There’s also something very timeless about the whole thing.”
Prochaska is no stranger to costume dramas. The Dark Valley is a western set in the Austrian Alps, while he also directed TV movie Sarajevo, about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand – considered to be the incident that sparked the build-up to the First World War. Yet it is Maximilian he describes as the biggest challenge of his career.
“It’s a challenge because I was watching a lot of historical pictures in preparation and there’s a style and a goal you want to reach but we don’t have that kind of money,” he explains. “But you still have images in the back of your head that you want to achieve, so I’m constantly trying to figure out ways to capture those scenes with our budget. I don’t want to just copy and paste other styles, I want to generate a style of my own with my own director of photography (DOP), art department, costumes and make-up.
“We’re not doing a documentary about guys in the 15th century, so we have done research to figure out how to make this interesting for a younger, contemporary audience. That’s a fine line you have to find. But we’re also not doing Game of Thrones. We’re based in reality and we did a lot of research with historians. But they’re like doctors – ask three of them and you get four opinions.”
The story is set within three different courts of Europe – France, Austria and Burgundy – and they are all being filmed in Austria. “If we could take our budget and go where we wanted, it would be easier. But we’re in a situation where we have to spend most of the money in Austria,” the director explains. “It’s a puzzle we have to put together to achieve the things the script requires.”
The logistics of the four-month shoot, which began in August, include 60 castles, palaces, church naves and medieval streets, 3,000 extras, 550 horses, 800 costumes and 100 suits of armour. Real-life settings include the castles of Rosenburg, Rapportenstein and Franzensburg, plus the Votive Church in Vienna.
Prochaska adds: “We’re shooting continuously and we have some travel days in between because the crew moves to the Czech Republic to shoot some battle scenes and in late November we move to Hungary to do some studio scenes there. It’s like a road movie – most of our locations are all around lower Austria so every two days we’re moving. It’s expansive and thrilling for everybody.”
Using real locations will help the miniseries add a layer of authenticity for viewers – but only if the lighting is right, Prochaska says. “We watched a lot of films (in preparation) and what I realised is that the light, to my taste, is often wrong. You get the feeling those places couldn’t have looked like they do in a lot of movies. When I’m talking to my DOP, I always try to find something that still feels real.
“The greatest challenge is ensuring things don’t look artificial with the actors in these weird costumes – the 15th century is not as cool as the 12th in terms of costume. I want to drag the audience into the middle of the scenes and not have the sense of looking at it from a distance that those costumes and locations could create.”
Maximilian also marks the first time Prochaska has worked with French actors, and the director says he enjoyed the opportunity to meet a new group of performers and to find a way to work with them across language barriers.
“We started with a scene in a French court and, thanks to the brilliance of the script by Martin Ambrosch (Sarajevo), we attracted an exciting French cast,” he says. “I don’t speak French, but even if you don’t understand every word, you very quickly get a sense if it’s right or wrong and that’s one of the first great experiences I had with this project. What we’ve seen in the dailies is amazing. Anlgade is a god in terms of acting.”
If television is considered to be a writer’s medium, nobody told Prochaska. With his background in film, where the director is king, he has brought the same level of involvement to Maximilian, including bringing Ambrosch on board to write the script.
“It doesn’t make a difference if I’m in television or film. When I’m doing something, I try to do it as well as possible,” he says. “I’m not just some hired gun to shoot the stuff that’s scheduled. I brought Martin onto this project because I knew he would deliver the material I need to get access to good actors and to get a story that people want to see.
“I was very involved in the whole development of the script. I didn’t get a call saying, ‘Here’s a screenplay, do you want to do it?’ I’m still a hired gun in a sense because it’s not something I was pushing forward, but it costs me two years of my life so I’m very keen that it’s good.”
Part of Prochaska’s involvement in the script process was to make sure the story didn’t go in a direction he felt would be too difficult to achieve on screen. “With our budget it’s not possible to do a battle scene like at the beginning of Gladiator. That’s what people expect when they see battle scenes,” he says. “I didn’t want to get into places where I couldn’t win.”
This meant that set pieces beyond the show’s budgetary limit had to be worked around with some creative thinking, but also meant Prochaska could build up the emotional aspects of the story while fighting takes place in the background. “At the beginning of the whole story, someone is found dead in a swamp in the aftermath of a battle. Then we have a dream sequence for the second battle and another sequence where the tension builds up to the start of a battle before cutting away to the people waiting at home,” he explains. “It’s more emotional to stay with Mary, who is waiting for Maximilian to come back, not knowing if he’s going to survive. For me, it’s more interesting to explore the emotional side of those situations than to do a battle scene we can’t afford.”
Like many film directors of late, Prochaska found the opportunity to move into television too good to turn down, and hopes he will be back for more. “This was something very attractive to me; this kind of miniseries or bigger series are the future of television,” he says. “Single TV movies will still be made but the focus is more on serialised content and Maximilian is a great opportunity for me to go in this direction.”
This week filming began on Maximilian, a lavish three-part period drama from MR Film, Beta Film, ORF and ZDF, budgeted at €15.5m (US$17.3m). The shoot is expected to take place over four months in Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic, and will involve 60 castles, palaces, church naves and medieval streets, 3000 extras, 550 horses, 800 costumes and 100 suits of armour.
A 100-strong team has worked for months in a 4,000-square-metre hall in Vienna to construct and produce all sorts of set decorations, costumes, wigs, weapons and – for the two battle scenes – fake corpses.
At the heart of all this pomp and circumstance is what the producers call “a captivating love story towards the end of the Middle Ages.”
Amid the power politics of medieval Europe, the narrative focuses on the romance between Mary of Burgundy and Maximilian, the headstrong son of Emperor Frederick III.
Beta Film CEO Jan Mojto said: “The powerful relationship between Maximilian and Mary works its fascination through its contrasts: here the Austrian Middle Ages, there the Flemish Renaissance; here impoverished knights, there bustling commercial centres; here political calculations, there grand, genuine emotions. These are the conflicting poles that must be aligned. And I have no doubt that director Andreas Prochaska and his outstanding roster of Franco-German stars will carry this off splendidly.”
Not to be overlooked either is Martin Ambrosch, the Austrian screenwriter who was tasked with writing the script for Maximilian. Born in 1964, Ambrosch started his career writing movies such as Frank Novotony’s Nachtfalter, Valentin Hitz’s Kaltfront and Antonin Svoboda’s Spiele Leben.
From 2001 to 2011 he was a writer, and later head writer, of crime drama SOKO Kitzbühel, for which he wrote more than 35 episodes. More recently, he wrote the pilot and eight episodes of ARD’s Das Glück Dieser Erde and a series of coproduced TV movies for ZDF/ORF under the Spuren des Bösen (Anatomy of Evil) banner.
The Spuren des Bösen films were directed by Prochaska (referenced above as director of Maximilian). The same writer/director duo then worked together on Sarajevo, an Austrian feature about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, an event that is generally regarded as having triggered World War One.
Maximilian is arguably Ambrosch and Prochaska’s biggest challenge to date, but they have certainly proved themselves capable of handling epic content. It will be interesting to see if the end result is able to travel as well internationally as other recent German-backed successes such as Generation War and Deutschland 83.
Production has also begun on season four of Victorian-era detective drama Ripper Street. The show was axed after two seasons on the BBC in the UK, but was subsequently revived by Amazon, which has also committed to a fifth season.
Ripper Street was created by Richard Warlow, who is also the lead writer on the series. Explaining the project’s appeal, he told the show’s US broadcaster BBC America: “It was all to do with trying to create a different kind of period show in a different kind of period London, where we could tell thriller stories instead of a drama. I hope we’re still a drama, but we’re essentially a police thriller in a world where I hope people haven’t seen a police thriller before.”
Represented by Curtis Brown, Warlow worked as a development executive at Pathe and DNA Films before getting his first break as a screenwriter with the original screenplay Three Mile Horizon, optioned to Paramount Pictures.
His other TV credits include writing on all three seasons of Mistresses, as well as showrunning its second and third series . In terms of upcoming projects, he is currently working on a new series for TXTV Ltd entitled The Boiling House and is adapting Hilary Mantel’s novel A Place of Greater Safety for Fox/DNA.
The latter, which tells the story of The French Revolution, is being developed for the BBC, which is presumably hoping for the same sort of success it has seen with fellow Mantel adaptation Wolf Hall.
Amazon, meanwhile, has confirmed that the second season of its transgender comedy Transparent will be streamed from December 4. The show is the creation of Jill Soloway, whose previous credits include Six Feet Under. One interesting fact about the new run is that there is a transgender female writer, classical pianist Our Lady J, on the team.
Although the first season of the show was widely acclaimed by both mainstream critics and the transgender community, Soloway had previously made it clear she wanted a transgender female writer on board to help with the show’s authenticity.
Speaking at a New York Festival last year, she said: “No matter what we did, we were always going to be ‘otherising’ Maura (the central character) in some way. And in the same way where I wouldn’t want a man to say, ‘I can have a writers room full of men and we can write women just fine,’ I can’t say that I can create a show about a trans woman and not have a trans woman writing for me.”
With a marked absence of transgender writers in the business, Our Lady J was selected at the end of 2014 from a number of writers who submitted short stories to the Transparent team.
Describing herself as a “post-religious” gospel singer, Our Lady J announced her involvement in the show via social media: “I’ll be taking the next year off from touring to dedicate my life to the Pfefferman’s as staff writer for season two of #transparenttv. Thank you for having faith in me, @jillsoloway. The world is beginning to see us as we have seen ourselves.”
Meanwhile, it was reported this week that there is going to be a nine-day mid-production shutdown on Baz Luhrmann’s The Get Down so that additional work can be done on scripts. The production, from Sony Pictures, is currently four episodes through what will be a 13-hour series.
Set in 1970s New York, the show was created by Lurhmann and Shawn Ryan and includes Jaden Smith in its cast. While Lurhmann is an example of film talent shifting to TV, Ryan is a veteran of the small screen. He was creator and showrunner of The Shield and The Chicago Code and co-creator of Last Resort. He is also used to working with marquee talent, having partnered David Mamet on covert-ops action series The Unit.
It was the service that changed the rules. But with subscriber numbers continuing to soar and questions being asked about higher prices, what comes next for Netflix?
You might not remember what you were doing on Sunday Feburary 5, 2012, but Netflix’s early adopters might remember sitting back and watching the first episode of a Norwegian comedy-drama called Lilyhammer.
Starring Steven Van Zandt, it follows a New York mobster who, after testifying in court against a mob boss, is placed in a witness protection programme and relocated to Lillehammer in Norway.
The fish-out-of-water premise might not sound particularly revolutionary in terms of TV storylines, but looking back at the words used by Ted Sarandos, chief content officer at Netflix, to announce the launch of the series, it’s amazing to consider how far the industry has come in little more than three years.
“Do you love the indulgence of watching episode after episode of your favourite shows on Netflix?” he asked. “Have you ever wished you could do the same with new shows when they premiere on TV? Well, starting today, you can enjoy as many episodes as you please of the brand new Netflix original series Lilyhammer, starring Steven Van Zandt.”
The phrase ‘binge-viewing’ had not yet become synonymous with Netflix and the way its viewers would use the service, but the foundations were being laid for a major shift in viewing habits.
After describing the series further, Sarandos ended: “Unlike any major TV premiere before it, we are debuting all eight episodes of the first season at the same time, today. Conventional TV strategy would be to stretch out the show to keep you coming back every week. We are trying to give our members what they want: choice and control. If you want to watch one episode a week, you can. If you want to watch the whole season this week, you can do that too.
“This will be the first of many brand new, original and exclusive series to debut on Netflix. We will have more news on those shows as they get ready to premiere. Enjoy the show and tell your friends – but no spoilers! They may not be on the same episode as you are on.”
With these few sentences, Sarandos outlined not only Netflix’s own strategy but one that the rest of the industry would soon follow, with an increasing number of online services commissioning original content and traditional broadcasters widening the opportunity to catch up online. NBC has already gone one step further than other US broadcasters to “push new boundaries” by releasing all 13 episodes of its David Duchovny-starring 1960s drama Aquarius at once. ZDF in Germany also blurred the lines of linear and digital TV with its pan-European crime drama The Team.
Fast forward from that Lilyhammer announcement to this week, when Netflix unveiled its results for the second quarter of 2015.
The service added 3.3 million new subscribers worldwide during that period, bringing the total to 65.6 million. It has 42 million members in the US alone.
Global numbers were boosted by the platform’s international expansion, with moves into Australia and New Zealand in March. It will land in Spain, Italy and Portugal in October this year, and aims to open in Japan in the fall. There are also plans to roll into India, China and South Korea.
These new international outlets will only help to swell subscriber numbers further, with Netflix CEO Reed Hastings under no illusion about what is drawing viewers both in the US and around the world to the service.
He told shareholders that subscriber growth was “fuelled by the growing strength of our original programming slate,” which in Q2 included the first seasons of Marvel’s Daredevil, Sense8 and season three of Orange is the New Black.
Daredevil is already in production for its second season, he notes, adding: “Our global expansion extends to our content strategy as well. Sense8, the mind-bending cinematic thriller from the Wachowski siblings and J Michael Straczynski that debuted June 5, is an ambitious, truly international show with talent behind and in front of the camera from multiple countries.”
Another international drama, Narcos – “a gripping account of the roots of the cocaine trade, shot in Colombia and starring the great Brazilian star Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar” – launches on August 28.
“They are the perfect example of what we strive for in our original programming: an elevated version of popular genres that reach a large audience globally,” Hastings says.
“We closed the quarter with season three of Orange is the New Black, which went live on June 11 and set off a social media shockwave around the world. On the following Sunday, Netflix members globally watched a record number of hours in a single day, led by Orange, despite the season finale of HBO’s Game of Thrones and game five of the NBA finals also falling on that Sunday.
“Global enthusiasm for the third season of Orange underlines our ability to create franchise properties that bring new members to Netflix as well as delighting current ones. Nearly 90% of Netflix members have engaged with Netflix original content, another indicator that we are on the right path.”
To that end, Netflix said it would continue to invest in original series (and now movies) as its original content spending is predicted to hit US$5bn in 2016.
The downside, however, is that this spending, coupled with a marketing bill nearing US$1bn in 2016, has led to a 63% fall in net income, according to the results.
If viewers want great content, ultimately they will have to pay for it, and on a subscriber-funded service like Netflix, that means subscriptions will rise.
Hastings alluded to as much when he said subscribers should brace themselves for higher-priced plans in the future, though no details have yet been released.
At a time when the television drama space is becoming increasingly congested, particularly in the US, where cable networks continue to move into original scripted programming to build their brands alongside VoD platforms, viewers will be asked to pay more and more for the high-cost shows they love so much or see them book-ended by advertisements.
But as cord-cutting has shown, viewers’ loyalty to their favourite service provider can, and often does, have a limit. Will Netflix test that loyalty when it unveils its new pricing plan?
The service broke the mould in 2012 when it launched its first original series, Lilyhammer, for viewers to watch in one go. Its attempts to balance spending and subscriber numbers could also be another watershed moment for the industry.