Despite reports to the contrary, Netflix had two titles at Canneseries: Harlan Coben’s closing night drama “Safe,” with “Dexter’s” Michael C. Hall, and Nico Moolenaar’s “Undercover,” a Belgian crime thriller which the streaming giant boarded early in development, taking global rights outside France, Germany and Belgium and announcing “Undercover” last November as its first Belgian-Dutch co-production.
Given Netflix does not have first-window TV rights to either show in France – that privilege on “Undercover” goes to Federation Ent., which also sells second TV window outside German-speaking territories and Belgium – Netflix’s large a<nd early involvement with “Undercover” may have been lost on most market attendees.
In two ways at least, “Undercover” is a sign of the industry times: Its multi-lateral multi window financing; its grounding in a specific reality.
Produced for Flemish pubcaster VRT by Belgium’s De Mensen, in co-production with Dutch FilmWorks, Good Friends, Gardner and Domm, “Undercover” is also backed by not only Netflix and Federation Ent, but Germany’s ZDF. It tapped more funding from the Gallop Tax Shelter and Belgium’s tax shelter.
Such financing is necessary to power up a budget or more ambitiouss drama wanting to stand out from the crowd.
“Undercover” is also based on true events. But those are stranger than fiction. Limburg, a pastoral part of Belgium, straddling the the Belgium-Dutch border, is “the Colombia of the synthetic drug trade. Just about all the world’s ecstasy is made there,” one character comments in Ep. 1.
In “Undercover,” two Belgian federal agents – Tom Waes (“New Texas”), Anna Drijver (“Love Life”) – are missioned to move in and shut down the operation of Limburg’s biggest ecstasy producer, Ferry Bouman, posing as a couple who rent a chalet on the modest lake-side campsite where Bouman spends his weekends.
That’s not his only endearing quality. He’s an attentive husband for his insecure wife, and has to put up with his motley team of deadbeats. In classic U.S. procedurals, characters suppress (“CSI”) or channel (“House”) their personality to raise their professional game. Laced with a hallmark hangdog and offbeat Flemish humor, “Undercover” takes the alternative route opened up by “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” where the personal mires the professional. It is typical of the grounded series which made ”authentic” a buzz-word at this year’s MipTV/Canneseries.
Variety talked to Moolenaar about a series which forms part of the building Flemish international series scene. De Mensen, for example, won 2016’s Series Mania with “Beau Séjour,” an out-there flagship for Belgian Noir.
“Undercover” has been described as a character-driven suspense thriller. I sense that one of the biggest challenges in “Undercover” was balancing those elements…..
One of the biggest challenges was to get the story going. We wanted to give a little bit of feeling of a cold approach in this undercover case, and that takes some time. Another big challenge is to keep it interesting from the start. In real life there isn’t so much suspense at the beginning of an investigation, an undercover agent just sit waiting for moments to make contact. We said let’s take our time to tell the story and remain confident in our characters. They will take us through the start. It’s a slow burn, but once it’s on the rails it gets better and better because of the investment we made in the characters in the beginning.
So the tension rises in later episodes?
I think it’s safe to say there will be a lot of surprises. Once the story gets going, the tempo is quite high. We had an ex-undercover agent as an adviser, and we built the case together with him. I think almost every episode he was saying to us that in real life your story would be over, the mission is blown. We would have to push and tell him to suppose it isn’t over, or ask what he would do to keep it going.
The opening scene of “Undercover” is spoken in Chinese, not Dutch, has a lab worker quarrel with his boss about the awful lab food – sausages – and finally stumble out of the lab shed into not some Beijing industrial sprawl but a placid green fields where the biggest danger is a herd of cows. The series paints a portrayal of Belgium’s drugs scene which seems too surreal not to be true. To what extent is it based on reality?
The Chinese scientists working in a lab was indeed a story we found in an article somewhere. There was a lab fire and they found a recipe for ecstasy written in Chinese. There were also sausages right next to the chemicals in the freezer, and that was an image from the start which was very thrilling for me to work with. On a larger scale, it is a fiction series inspired by several real life cases. First I wanted to tell an undercover story, then we went to look for a good case for our fictional characters to work on, and we discovered this backdrop of Limburg as one of the ecstasy capitals of the world.
Netflix boarded “Undercover” in early development, right?
Yes, they were there from the start. We had a lot of freedom and trust from them in making this story. The danger was an important element to introduce very early on, but then the humor was my decision. It came from the creative team not the networks. The major network we got our notes from was VRT in Belgium. But I’m very excited that this show will be available for Netflix’s 117 million members around the world.
Undercover is a Flemish-Dutch co-production. I’m surprised there have been so few in the past, considering the territories speak the same language…
There weren’t that many because there still is a big cultural difference. It’s funny in a way, because these countries are so small and yet so different. We speak the same language but a different dialect. The way we look at things is different. I’m half-Dutch, half-Belgian, and for me Holland is a surprising place. I think the cultural difference is a big one, but right now the economic situation means we have to look for ways to expand our budget. It’s easy to look at our neighbors who speak the same language and rediscover how we can work.