The fourth edition of Be Dramatic! once again set out to dissect the working models of two as-yet-unseen major drama series. Moderator Marie Barracco of French think tank and festival Série Series quizzed the creative teams behind the Dutch series Flying Dutchmen and the upcoming UK series Informer before getting to grips with new Head of Scripted EMEA at EndemolShine, Lars Blomgren.
By: Nick Cunningham
The Topkapi series Flying Dutchmen is set between the two world wars and tells of the turbulent relationship between KLM founder Albert Plesman and aviator Anthony Fokker. The 8 x 50-minute series is to be directed by Joram Lürsen and produced by Topkapi’s Idse Grotenhuis. The pair were joined onstage by writer Thomas van der Ree and visual effects supremo Dennis Kleyn. Grotenhuis confirmed that the €7 million budget is 95% complete with financing sourced from NPO, sales company Global Screen, private investment and the Netherlands Production Incentive. Dutch broadcaster is AVROTROS. Shooting is planned for Summer 2019 in Hungary (60%) and The Netherlands (40%).
Writer Van der Ree explained how he reacted to Topkapi’s suggestion of a film about Plesman by insisting that the character of Fokker should be part of the mix. When he conducted research into whether there was enough material to support this proposal, he was pleasantly surprised. “There was almost too much. These two dealt with each other for over twenty years. There were a lot of fights, a lot of emotional dramatic circumstances both in their own lives and together, which formed the perfect arc for a series.”
Producer Grotenhuis added: “What attracts me most about the story is that it is really dramatic, because these two men were totally different. Plesman was an idealist who thought that after the First World War there should never be a war again, and believed that civil aviation would be able to connect worlds, so he was idealistic and visionary. Fokker was an opportunist who was always trying to sell his planes. He sold many planes during the war to the Germans but once the Treaty of Versailles was signed he smuggled them back into Holland to sell them to KLM as civil aeroplanes.”
Much of the discussion was given over to the sophisticated VFX needed to tell the story and how, with a delivery date of early 2020, post-production is as much in everyone’s minds as shooting schedules. “The first challenge is really to break down the story, the script, into the manageable parts, see what we have to build, what will be the production design, see what we can do from the visual effects side and where the expertises can blend and co-operate,” stressed special effects expert Kleyn.
The primetime BBC drama Informer (UK), produced by Julian Stevens of Neal Street Productions was next up. Also in Utrecht were the series’ lead actor Nabhaan Rizwan and all3media’s Rachel Glaister. The series tells how a young man is coerced by the counter-terrorism police in the UK to become an informant.
The script was written by new writers Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani who conducted intensive research before submitting a pitch to the BBC who quickly commissioned a script. “It’s not that common but it’s becoming less unusual [for young writers to be commissioned],” said producer Stevens. “It is a very commonly repeated phrase to say that it comes down to the strength of the writing, but it really does, and Rory and Sohrab are very gifted writers. They had a spec script. They wrote a great treatment. They are incredibly genre-literate and film-literate so at meetings they could speak very confidently about their visions, and I think – certainly from the BBC’s point of view – a good idea is always a good idea.”
Added all3media’s Glaister: “There was something there that made it stand out in its tone and ambition. We come in early to do the money side initially and to enable the production happen, and then we step away to let the talented people do their talented things, but we really loved the fact that this [production] was very much about people. We went home with these characters, and we saw how they loved and how they hurt. We could hand on heart say about this one, you are really going to be engaged emotionally with these people.”
Actor Rizwan didn’t have to wait long to secure a major role after being picked up for agent representation in May 2017. He landed the part in Informer the following August (although he concedes that the three-week wait between final audition and offer was excruciatingly nerve-racking). “As an actor you get scripts all the time. Some you don’t quite get, and some are a little bit clichéd but occasionally you get a few that come through that are really strong, and as an actor you do more to kind of meet them half way and put the work in. That was what appealed to me, right off the bat.”
Glaister went on to describe her expectations for Informer in terms of international broadcast. “Part of our role was to profile it and to make the thinking classes, that AB awareness model, let them know that the show exists, let them know that there should be a conversation about it and then nudge the broadcaster to try and find the right environment in the right slot for it, at the right time. So we are not expecting everybody to be able to play it straight away – it has…to wait for the right time.”
Moderator Marie Barracco of Série Series summed up the panel discussions: “What is interesting is that we have quite complete creative teams here to talk about how they worked. Each series [applies] a different model, so the people in the room always have something to learn from the people on stage.
“So for Informer, for example, the series is ready, you have the whole process behind you, and then you have the Flying Dutchmen team who are here and currently in the development process and their point of view is different, and they are still looking for answers. So it was very important for them to challenge their series with the professionals in the room.
“VFX is one of the challenges for Flying Dutchmen, so it was very important for us to give space to this during the discussion. And for Informer, to have the actor here to talk about his engagement, and the fact that the BBC trusted a very young writer team and actor was also very interesting.”
Closing the event, Swedish producer Lars Blomgren, newly appointed Head of Scripted EMEA at EndemolShine (which he described as ‘not a big ship, more a flotilla of small ships’) talked to Barracco about his successes to date and his views on the current state of the industry. Not surprisingly, much of the conversation concerned his production of the now-legendary Swedish series The Bridge which, he pointed out, “sold everywhere except Syria and North Korea,” before showing us various international versions of the infamous opening scene.
So was The Bridge a success from the start? “Yes and no,” he responded. “Because she (the character of Saga) is so strange, that kind of pushed people away. So the ratings for the second episode went down, but then we saw the catch-up numbers. People talked about the programme and [people who missed it] had to see it, so when the third episode came we saw that the catch-up was fantastic, and then it was away. It took a while to convince the audience that she was more than just nuts.”
Blomgren pointed out how he was determined to apply a cinema aesthetic to the initial series by giving it a satisfying ending, but the genie was out of the bottle and subsequent (and highly successful) series of The Bridge were inevitable. Surprisingly, budgets increased by a mere 10% per new series – this was mainly down to increased acting fees as the series’ stars assumed greater pulling power.
He further explained how The Bridge with its subtitles contributed to “social media blackout’’ in the UK, where second screen usage (ie the practice of simultaneously tweeting while viewing) is reaching epidemic proportions.
He went on to underline the responsibility that producers and series creators bear in providing nuanced, intelligent and sensitive series, even within the realm of crime. “The way we do it [crime] is like family dramas on steroids. You step into families [with their] crises and loss and anger and revenge… it is just another layer, and is a good platform to tell important stories.”
But content providers are operating within a shifting landscape, he stressed: “It is interesting with the development of the world right now because a few years ago all of the broadcasters, they wanted dystopias, specifically sci-fi dystopias, and then comes Trump and we are like ‘now we need La La Land’. The changes come so fast and the problem for us is that the time [to develop] a scripted show is longer than the actual changes in society, so it is a difficult game we are trying to play.”
Blomgren was asked about the current state of non-English language drama and its prospects in the marketplace. “The short answer is that it is better than ever. The challenge is that everything that travels outside the originating country, that has been made at the higher end, is as expensive as it gets in that country in terms of development time… and that is also the level where the OTTs (online content providers) now step in. If they go into the Netherlands they will work on a much higher budget than is normal for the Netherlands. The challenge [for non-OTTs] is to have enough development time and enough budget to make [their content] travel.”
“I love the idea that the European way of working is to involve a broadcaster very early,” Blomgrem said towards the end of the discussion. “The Americans hate this as they want to develop an idea and then take it to market and have a bidding war and have a package with the right actors attached…
“I think [our approach] will survive in Europe…and the Americans will slowly understand the way our minds work (and we will understand theirs) but I think our old tradition of development will last more and more.”