Writer Quoc Dang Tran and director Oded Ruskin raise a glass with DQ to toast completing the ‘impossible task’ of adapting 44-volume manga series Drops of God as an eight-part TV series, which follows two people competing to inherit the world’s finest wine collection.
In terms of being pushed out of his comfort zone, writer Quoc Dang Tran found a kindred spirit in director Oded Ruskin when they partnered for an adaptation of a Japanese manga series set in the world of wine.
In its original form, Drops of God (神の雫 or Kami, no Shizuku) stretches to 44 volumes. But together, Tran and Ruskin have distilled the essence of the story into eight episodes filmed in locations across France, Italy and Japan, for a project very different from anything either man has worked on before.
“I’ve done stuff of this scale, but I’ve never done anything so unique and different and out of my comfort zone, because usually I come from thrillers and comedies. I’ve never done anything so different,” Ruskin (No Man’s Land, False Flag) tells DQ. “It was the best experience I’ve ever had in my life, honestly. This is my favourite show I’ve done. I’m 51, so it’s pretty late, but I loved it.”
French writer Tran (Marianne, Parallels) was approached to adapt the manga five years ago by Dynamic Television producer Klaus Zimmermann and associate producer Sonia Moyersoen. After reading the first volume, he initially thought the task was impossible.
“I didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t know anything about wine. It was out of my comfort zone too,” he says. “It is such a unique story that I didn’t know what to do with it, but then I slept on it and, the day after, I thought, ‘OK, there are things that are really exciting and interesting to me.’ This is a story about love – filial and parental love – so I thought maybe I could do something with it.”
The series opens as the world of gastronomy and fine wines is mourning the death of Alexandre Léger, creator of the famous Léger Wine Guide and an emblematic figure in oenology, who has just passed away at his home in Tokyo. He leaves behind a daughter, Camille, who lives in Paris and hasn’t seen her father since her parents separated when she was nine years old.
When Camille flies to Tokyo for the reading of her father’s will, she discovers he has left her an extraordinary wine collection – the greatest in the world, according to the experts. However, to claim her inheritance, Camille must pass three challenges in competition with a brilliant young oenologist, Issei Tomine, whom her father took under his wing and is referred to in Léger’s will as his “spiritual son.”
As is often the case with adaptations, Tran found the route to the screen to be an indirect one. Where the manga sees main characters Shizuku and Issei compete over 13 rounds, the series has scaled back the challenges. But he says the show – coproduced by Dynamic, Legendary Television, France Télévisions and Hulu Japan – is always “very respectful” to the spirit of the source material. Legendary is also handling worldwide distribution outside of France and Japan.
“It’s a different proposal, but I hope that if you have read the books and you watch the show, there will be something oddly familiar about it,” Tran says. “The characters, the themes – I respected the concepts.”
Coming together from different worlds, and different sides of the planet, Camille and Issei first meet simply as competitors, but their relationship changes across the eight episodes. When viewers first encounter her, Camille is conflicted by her estranged relationship with her father, who clearly had a strong influence on her from a young age – as seen through flashbacks. Issei, meanwhile, is cold, lonely and methodic, with his mother rejecting his interest in pursuing a career in wine.
Tran compares Drops of God to a coming-of-age drama, with romance and adventure. “They don’t know who they are at the beginning of this show. They’re lost in their family, in their environment. They don’t know what to do with their lives. One of them, Issei, thinks he knows, but everything is against him. But after a while, they discover who they are. That’s the most interesting part to me.”
While the manga is set in Japan, Tran took his involvement in the project to mean the story should be relocated to France. But such was his desire to honour the source material that he thought it would be more interesting to pitch a Western character against someone from the East.
“They have nothing to do with each other. They have nothing in common, it seems. But then they discover each other – and it’s more exciting to discover Japan. This is an adventure,” he says, noting one of the biggest changes in the series is to turn male Shizuku into female Camille. “But it’s like the essence of a perfume. I read the mangas and I tried to break it down to the essence of the characters and the essence of the theme, so it’s different but, at the same time, it feels familiar. That’s how I try to work.”
Israeli filmmaker Ruskin joined the project when all eight scripts had been written. “That’s always a good sign,” he jokes. However, he was initially unsure about taking on the job and similarly had to look past the show’s focus on wine to discover the people and relationships at the heart of the story.
“I was terrified because I’d never done anything like that, but it grew on me really fast,” he says. Changes were made to the scripts, adding the director’s point of view into the mix, and once Fleur Geffrier and Tomohisa Yamashita were cast in the lead roles, the puzzle started to come together.
“Sonia and Quoc were a bit taken aback in the beginning when they met me because I’m very direct, I say everything, and they were like, ‘Oh, we have to work with this guy.’ But everything started clicking and it was a very smooth production, honestly.”
Known for directing thrillers, Ruskin approached Drops of God in a similar way to his usual work. In fact, he says he directed the series like a horror film, but one without a monster. “There was something very frightening about Camille’s whole experience. There’s a lot of tension between them in the competition, and it just grows bigger and bigger. It’s a show about wine but we just looked at it as a thriller and a horror,” he says.
That approach brought a certain rhythm and look to the show, while French and Japanese films inspired the way Ruskin shot Camille and Issei. “When you go to Issei, everything is a bit more powerful, with straight lines. Everything is very symmetrical,” the director explains. “Once you go to Camille, everything is a bit messier, there’s way more movement and the frames are more dirty in a way. But once the drama gets going, it all blends in and we just tried to find the best way to shoot a scene according to the story.”
As he has done on previous series, Ruskin directed every episode. But he has never directed in so many different languages. “I don’t speak French or Japanese, and my Italian is really bad,” he admits. But he says a good script, a committed cast and a supportive crew made everything on the 90-day shoot easier.
“There were a lot of difficulties along the way because of Covid. We couldn’t enter Japan at the beginning and we had to fake some stuff outside,” he says. “There were a lot of obstacles, but we always knew we were going to solve them. There was a guardian angel for the show. Every time something went wrong, something better came up, and it’s still happening now in the edit.”
Some of the most visually dramatic scenes see Camille transported to a white room, with explosions of colour popping around her to illustrate the tastes and sensations she experiences when she drinks wine.
That idea came from Tran’s scripts, but it’s also an example of how Ruskin wanted to keep the show grounded in reality, with use of visual effects kept to a bare minimum. Scenes in a forest were filmed on location, while the colourful dust explosions really did cover actor Geffrier.
“When I met Ruskin for the first time, he knew right away he didn’t want to do big special effects stuff,” Tran says. “He wanted something really grounded. He wanted something naturalistic, something that was very simple, but true in a way. That’s exactly what we’ve done – and to be fair, Ruskin brought some stuff that was a lot better than what I had written in the script.”
With Drops of God now in post-production ahead of its 2023 launch, Ruskin says he has a new appreciation of wine. And despite the headaches of filming an international series during the pandemic, he says that from the moment he shot the first scene – a clip featuring a young Camille in episode two – he knew everything would turn out alright.
“She didn’t speak English, and we were doing one of the more difficult scenes she had to do. But three hours in, I was looking at the DOP and the assistant director and they were enjoying themselves and the girl was good. From that moment, I was like, ‘Yeah, we’re going to do this. It’s going to be good.’ We just clicked, and that was the moment I knew it would be good.”
tagged in: Drops of God, Dynamic Television, France Télévisions, Hulu Japan, Legendary Television, Oded Ruskin, Quoc Dang Tran