Killer Coaster writer-director Nikola Lange and producer Barbara Maubert take DQ on a ride behind the scenes of Prime Video’s unique murder-mystery comedy, set in a funfair that becomes the ghoulish scene for a series of deaths.
When it comes to one-line pitches, the idea behind Prime Video’s latest French original series is hard to beat.
Set against the backdrop of the 1998 FIFA World Cup, Killer Coaster introduces Sandrine Laplace, a clumsy traffic warden who thinks she’s a CIA agent. When she decides to investigate a mysterious accident on the ghost train at a local fairground, she inadvertently infiltrates a merciless world – made up of clan wars, candy floss and bumper cars – and forms an uneasy alliance with Carmen and Yvanne to track a potential killer.
The six-part series comes from creator, writer and director Nikola Lange, who was going through a tough period between the Covid pandemic and the cancellation of his previous show, 2020’s Derby Girl.
But as Lange and writing partner Thomas Mansuy shared a few beers, they considered an idea they had for their next project – the story of a serial killer in a funfair.
Lange took their idea to sibling French actors Alexandra Lamy and Audrey Lamy, and Alexandra’s daughter Chloe Jouannet – the project bible was sent to them as a Christmas present at the end of 2021 – while producer Barbara Maubert pitched the series to Prime Video.
“And here we are,” he jokes, speaking to DQ ahead of Killer Coaster’s worldwide launch on September 15.
“It was really exciting for us as a trio – Nikola, Thomas and I – and also for Prime Video because in France, the Lamys are stars but they are mostly known for comedy,” Maubert says. “The three of them also play in dramedies. But at that time, seeing the girls in a murder-mystery horror-comedy was really sweet. And Chloe also played the main role in Derby Girl.”
Rather than focusing on the characters who would attempt to solve the mystery, work on the series began with the killer. Keen to avoid comparisons or clichés, Lange looked at other series and films to find a new way to tell a familiar genre story.
“We wanted to surprise the audience. For the characters, we developed them step by step through the writing process,” he says. Building Sandrine, Carmen and Yvanne was then helped by the fact they were developed specifically for Alexandra, Audrey and Chloe, respectively. Killer Coaster marks the first time all three have starred together in a series.
“With Sandrine, we wanted to show a fish out of water – this cop, a traffic warden, who thinks she’s a secret agent and she can do anything, but she has no skills,” Lange says of the central character. “We started with this figure but we didn’t want to push it like it was a real comedy show. We wanted to push the boundaries but not put her in an extreme universe. We still wanted it to be organic and authentic, so she is a traffic warden. Her aspiration was to be a secret agent but she had no skill set for that. We really wanted to have her try to be something she isn’t, but we didn’t want to make it a parody either.”
The high-concept series walks a line between farcical comedy and heightened drama, and the show’s quirky tone is highlighted early on as the overly enthusiastic Sandrine is involved in a foot race with a suspected thief.
A similar style was present in Derby Girl – the story of a former figure skater determined to become the greatest roller derby champion of all time – but that series was more of an outright comedy than Killer Coaster. “We wanted Killer Coaster to respect the characters’ emotional feelings,” Lange adds. “The first episodes are funny, but when you watch the whole season, I don’t think it’s that funny.”
“I thought it was really exciting – we are two kamikazes,” says Maubert. “I was excited about the idea of Nikola and Thomas’s writing merging with a different arena, and the idea of a serial killer in a theme park has a real emotional impact on everyone.
“The fact that Thomas and Nikola decided to set this series in the 1990s, which was another challenge for me as a producer, added a lot of nostalgia to the project, so I was really excited. I was also excited about seeing Alexandra, Chloe and Audrey as carnies, because they share the same generosity and charisma. But I knew we would have to find a broadcaster that could finance this ambitious project. We come from local series and we had to find the right broadcaster for this show.”
Fans of Lange’s previous work, the Prime Video execs were suitably won over by Maubert’s pitch, with a greenlight arriving two weeks after her first meeting with a commissioner. “They were really excited about the proposal and the fact the series was a little bit edgy with mainstream casting,” she adds. “Everybody knows about the Lamys in France, and it was really challenging for the girls too, but they were really happy about the proposal.”
Lange describes the story as a tale of two halves, with the first three episodes seeking to unite Sandrine, Carmen and Yvanne together before the threat of a serial killer reveals itself and they team up to solve the mystery.
“That’s the most exciting part because I wanted to articulate the story around this trio – it’s very meta because they’re a family in real life, so the fact they don’t like each other in the story is quite funny,” he notes.
Lange describes his writing process on the show as “drinking too much coffee and eating too much food.” He doesn’t separate his role as writer from that of director, imagining the set and the shots he will choose once filming begins. But he does frequently have to remind himself that some of the things he dreams up might not be achievable in production.
“I wanted a big wheel in the funfair but it was very expensive,” he says as an example. “But the actors were very open to try new things because they trusted me, so they were happy to do things they wouldn’t normally do with other directors. It was a friendly experience.”
Produced by Maubert’s Vacarme label, the series was shot at Fabrikus World amusement park, near to Palavas les Flots in the South of France, where the story is set. Filmed mostly at night, Killer Coaster immediately takes on a supernatural quality that quickly creates a nightmarish atmosphere among the cheers and cries of the park’s crowds.
Fans of Derby Girl – which did subsequently return for a second season in 2022 – might recognise a continuity of style between that series and Lange’s latest work. The only difference, he says, is that he had more time and a bigger budget on Killer Coaster.
“It’s very similar to my own style, which is very theatrical,” he continues. “But that was also one of the difficulties. Some scenes required some naturalistic mise en scène. For example, we have a fight scene in the fourth episode that I wanted to be very authentic, so there’s no music, no theatrical style, but a lot of camera movements.”
“I cried the first time I saw the fight scene,” Maubert says. “As Nikola is saying, it leaves this theatrical atmosphere, and the shock was really huge for me. I stepped out of the editing room when I saw it.”
“She didn’t know I could be emotional,” Lange laughs.
Behind the camera, the director serves up a number of shot choices that range from close-ups on the main characters to long tracking shots and a standout drone sequence that pulls back from the ground to reveal the entire funfair.
“The size of the set was so big that every day I had to invent something because there were so many as angles, so many perspectives,” he explains. “I had to be very precise to shoot everything I wanted. The drone was a long discussion with Barbara because she didn’t want to finance it, so I had to convince her. We had this huge discussion about it and finally she told me, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ I think it’s a money shot.”
“When Nikola shot the opening of the series, it was a tough plan on paper,” the producer responds, noting how the drone synchronises with a moving rollercoaster in the shot. “It seemed really hard to shoot. What was really exciting for our team was that everyone had something very precise to do – and the first shot worked. But Nikola asked for 18 takes. The team was jumping everywhere, hugging each other [because we got it] and Nikola wanted to do it again and again. It was the second take that we edited [for the series].
“The real reason was our team was on the roller coaster, and they did it 18 times,” Lange adds.
The production team had the luxury to shoot as many takes as they needed owing to the fact the funfair was only open to the public at weekends, meaning they had the run of the park during the week. To make it look busy, a lot of extras were brought in, while the crew worked alongside some of the funfair staff to operate the rides and attractions.
“To be honest, the preparation didn’t go that well,” Lange notes. “I wrote until the end. We had some troubles with the funfair because we could shoot this one [ride] but not that one. It was challenging. The lighting was also difficult because it’s so huge. We had some platforms to light everything, but it was very slow and complicated when we wanted to shoot different angles.
“One of the biggest challenges was to recreate a spooky, scary atmosphere at the funfair. When you think about a funfair, you have this image – it’s colourful, there’s popcorn, candy and everything. To be scary, we had to put a threat into this place, and it was very difficult because a funfair is a fun place, not a scary place.”
Lange’s theatrical sensibilities also lent themselves to recreating the 90s – from fashion to the show’s soundtrack – while the story mirrors the hopes of the French national football team, with France hosting the 1998 World Cup and famously going on to triumph over Brazil in the final.
“It was a backdrop but it was useful thematically,” Maubert says. “The boys chose to make a comparison between France during the World Cup and this trio [of characters] – nobody believed in them at the beginning of the story but, in the end, they win. So they wanted to do a parallel between these two teams.”
Meanwhile, Maubert says producing Killer Coaster was made a more of a challenge by the bigger budget and higher expectations that come with making a Prime Video series.
“We had only made low-budget series before, and when you have money, there is no longer an excuse if something looks shitty,” she says. “This series was really ambitious because we had to make a period drama, almost 60% of which was shot at night, with many stunts and visual effects, choreographies and fights.
“We told Amazon Prime Video it’s a slightly horrific, murder-mystery comedy, which means it had to be scary, funny and puzzling at the right moments and in the same episode. That meant we only found the tone of the series almost at the end of the editing, and we agreed with Prime Video we should keep the first episode until the end of the editing, because we knew it would be a work in progress.”
Despite the eye-catching setting and blend of genres, Killer Coaster is a murder mystery at its heart. Lange and Mansuy were also able to incorporate elements of the funfair into their storylines – murders take place on different attractions, while props such as a candy floss stick become lethal weapons.
As for the mystery element, meanwhile, Lange drew on an unlikely source for inspiration. “When we were shooting the last episodes in the sewers, I thought a lot about Scooby Doo because there are a lot of characters who we are seeing step by step in the series,” he says. “So I wanted to recreate that in a way. Scooby Doo is one of my inspirations.”