Q&A: Harlan Coben Chats About ‘No Second Chance’ And Career Switch

While at Mipcom to present his first TV show, “No Second Chance,” popular American crime novelist Harlan Coben sat with Variety to discuss the new direction that his career is taking. The writer is back in France for “No Second Chance,” almost a decade after teaming with Guillaume Canet on the French adaptation of his book “Tell No One,” which turned out to be a hit in Gaul and abroad. And this year, Coben boasts a slate of TV projects in France and in the U.K., as well as three Hollywood movies based on his books – “Six Years,” “Missing Me” and the English-language redo of “Tell No One” — in development.  Commissioned by French commercial network TF1, “No Second Chance” is an action/thriller mini-series that will be directed by Francois Velle (“Bones”) with Alexandra Lamy (“Never On The First Night”), Pascal Elbe (“The Other Son”) and Hippolyte Girardot (“The Girl King”).

“No Second Chance” marks your first time as a showrunner and it’s also the first time one of your books is turned into a TV series. Why did you wait this long to leap into TV?

I’m actually doing three TV shows this year and this one is the first. I have a strange relationship with the film/TV business — I’ve always wanted to keep a distance and write my books. But lately, because TV has done so great – we’re living in the Golden Age of TV — I just feel that it’s a great way of telling stories. Instead of taking one of novels and condense it, I thought it would be so much more fun to expand on it. Sidney (Gallonde) happen to hit me at a good time. He came over from France and talked me into it, the same way it happened with Guillaume Canet (who directed the hit thriller “Tell No One”), I’ve done this twice and it’s been with crazy young French people. Sidney is 31 and Guillaume was around the same age when I met him. I love Sidney’s passion, I loved his ideas, what he wanted to do with the book and I said “Ok, I want to do a TV series.” I think this particular book lends itself beautifully to a TV series and we’ll update it a little bit.

TF1 jumped on board and they gave us a lot of freedom. It’s similar to what happened with “Tell No One” where everyone had the same vision. We all know exactly the kind of stories we want to tell, we want to keep people in suspense, we want to stir their pulse, but we also want that warmth, we want that family feeling and we want to break their heart also.

Why do you think your books haven’t yet been adapted into TV shows or movies in the U.S. before? 

In America, sometimes it doesn’t work. How many times have you seen something announced and it doesn’t happen. So part of it is that and part of it is that I go by gut and the same thing with “Tell No One.” It had been optioned by Hollywood repeatedly. But I did not like the script, they didn’t quite get it. And I thought Guillaume got it. So I thought why don’t I just do what I want and not just what everyone wants to do. My meeting with Sidney was decisive. He’s a young father and he related to this father’s journey (the main character of the book). So basically I just go by hunch, by what I feel and I’m usually right. Sidney’s given me the freedom. It’s been a great collaboration.

Have you considered making it the show in English?

No, it never really came up. All my book have been translated and they seem to do well. What I like about this experience on “No Second Chance” is that I think it’s a good mix. It’s a good blend of my American crime love story combined with that sort of French sensibility. I think that’s what made “Tell No One” rise to whole different level. A lot of times, the American televisions may want to try to make it too ordinary.

Also, TF1 is a partner and I can’t think a network in the U.S. that gets the kind of audience that TF1 gets (averaging 8 or 9 million viewers on primetime). So why would I want to do it in English and have a smaller audience? I’m very excited that TF1 wanted to come on board, that they wanted to do something completely different and take a chance.

How did the casting go?

It’s been a collaborative process with Sidney Gallonde, Francois Velle (the director) and TF1 and the final decisions were mine. Thet sent me names, sometimes they sent me the audition tapes. Sometimes I watched the movies with the people in it. When I saw Alexandra Lamy in some of her most serious roles, “Maddened By The Absence,” I thought she was so good in it. I soon as I saw her play this heartbroken mother, midway through I stopped and I called Sidney and I said, “I’ll watch everything else but I already know I want her.”

How did you adapt your book into a French TV series?

I don’t want to tell you because it will ruin the surprise. The biggest change is that the lead character in the book is the male, and we’ve changed that to have a female lead, Alexandra Lamy. I wanted to modernize the book because I wrote it in 2002, and it came out in 2003 and 2004. If I had written it now I would have written it with a female lead. It works well with a female character because we can play out the maternal instinct of the mother and we get to have an actress like Alexandra to play that part.

Why did you chose Francois Velle to direct the show? 

Sidney recommended Francois. I had actually met Francois years earlier. He had directed a movie called “The Narrows” and I watched the “Bones” episodes that he directed. He did a marvelous job. I spoke to the producer, and I also spoke to my friend who was the creator of the show and he only had nice things to say. We met and saw that he had the same vision. When he saw the first draft of the script he had the same problem that I had. He’s got a great eye for color, vision and he’s going to make something special.

What’s the French sensibility you referred to?

It’s hard to say. If I ask you in “Tell No One” where is the American and French sensibility, you might have some trouble defining it.It’s like writing Settings. Setting is on every page of a script but you don’t have to mention it on every page. If I’m writing a book that takes place in America in the early 1970’s, the Vietnam war is always there but I don’t have to mention it on every page. When I think of French sensibility, it’s the warmth, the friendships, a certain feel to the romances, to the behaviors that are somewhat uniquely French.

What’s your inspiration for this show?

I like to think that I’m doing is unique. People in Hollywood always say you know what this is like? “It’s like ‘Schindler’s List’ meets ‘A Bug’s Life,'” but it’s the most ridiculous thing in the world. I want it the show to be the next great thing, I want it to be the next “Breaking Bad,” or the next “Homeland.”

How did you factor in the international market when you developed “No Second Chance”? And in general, do you take foreign readers/audiences into account when you write a novel?

Never, I never think of that. I think about telling the best story I can. If I start thinking “Oh you know this part will be very good in Bulgaria or this part is good in Poland, the book becomes nothing. I worry about what will be the best story. If it’s a great story the Americans are going to want to see it too. Great TV series always translate.

The way you make a universal story is by not making it universal story. When you try too hard, you lose it. I make my stories very specific about family, suburbs and New Jersey. And the more specific I get with that, the more universal the appeal. Why say, “Instead of making this area so specific of New Jersey I’m going to make it like every town in the USA, I’m going to make it more generic?” If I do that I lose you. That’s why “The Sopranos” was so great: It was so New Jersey. People all like the same thing, they all like great stories.

What prompted you to get involved in various films and TV shows all of the sudden?

About a year ago I realized that I wanted new worlds to conquer. I sold a lot of books , and felt ready to tell stories in a different way. Number two, even though I love movie stuff too, I’m much more excited about TV these days because I’ve seen interesting storytelling over the past five or ten years: “Breaking Bad,” “Lost,” “Homeland,” “Dexter” and “True Detective.” These shows in my view have been much better thrillers than anything in the movie theaters. That’s what I want to do. Taking one of my novels and turning it into a great show.

I’m working in England with a U.K. network and Red Productions on a TV show that’s based on an original idea of mine. It starts filming in March. It’s a 10 episode series. And I’m working with another network on a third TV project.

There are three feature projects based on my books: “Six Years” with Paramount and Hugh Jackman attached; “Missing You,” Brett Ratner’s RatPac/Warner Bros. and the “Tell No One”‘s U.S. remake with Liam Neeson attached to play Francois Cluzet’s role.

Chris Terrio (“Argo”), who wrote the script of “Tell No One”’s U.S. remake, worked with me on the adaptation. And I’ve been a little involved in “Missing You.”

Do you think these three movie projects will get made this time around?

Yes I do. But I’ve felt that before. How many directors have been attached to Tell No One… Five maybe, or six: Ben Affleck, Andrew Dominik, Gavin O’Connor, Michael Apted… So I count on nothing. But all three are in good shape, especially Missing You. Ratpack doesn’t mess around, they have to make things happen. Brett seems very excited about it. I wouldn’t be surprise if all three get made.

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