PARIS — Edward Berger arrives at the Series Mania Co-Production Forum not only with one of the most-timely projects of the event but with one of last year’s biggest cross-over successes to his name. Although an experienced feature director in his own right – recently having a homegrown hit with 2014’s Berlin-set “Jack”, in which a neglected ten-year-old by goes searching for his mother – Berger last year helmed the Stasi-era drama “Deutschland 83”, which debuted to great acclaim at the Berlinale, one of the new wave of series to bow at a film festival.
Not only did the show deliver a stylish and engrossing spy story, “Deutschland 83” also drew praise for a vibrant soundtrack that mixed the music of David Bowie, New Order and The Eurythmics with local heroine Nena and her 1983 Europop hit “99 Luftballons”. For his follow-up, Berger is planning to work on a much broader canvas, telling an ambitious story that spans several international cities and even continents. Titled “Eden,” it aims to examine the state of modern Europe via the impact of the current immigration crisis. Produced by Lupa Films and Port au Prince, “Eden” is co-produced by Lagardere’s Atlantique Productions in France, and looks like a major addition to its burgeoning slate.
What was the starting point for Eden?
Edward Berger: A friend of mine suggested doing a series on the refugee crisis. I said, ‘Yeah, well, probably a lot of people are thinking of doing that.’ I told my producers [Felix von Boehm and Jimmy Desmarais] about it, and I said that I would be interested in doing it in a “Syriana” kind of way – if we had many stories over the course of the series and if it would span the whole of Europe, in different languages. They said O.K., and then they came back a few weeks later and said, ‘All right, we can do it now – we have a development budget.’ I was really surprised that it went so quickly! Then we sat down and kicked some ideas around. It developed in the writers’ room, basically.
It begins with a killing, doesn’t it?
Edward Berger: It starts with two African boys in Greece who run away from a hot spot where there’s chaos breaking out. They are afraid they will be sent back to Turkey, that they’ll starve, so they run away. That’s how it starts – with them running. They find a house that’s empty – a holiday home that’s locked up for the season – and they decide to stay there for a few days. They meet a German girl who lives in the neighborhood and she lets them into the house. The next morning, a security guard – whose story we also follow – gets the message that there’s something going on at the house, so he checks up on it. And by accident, because he’s scared, he pulls a gun and shoots one of the two boys. That triggers the story.
Is there a thriller element – or is it a genre piece in any way?
Edward Berger: I wouldn’t call it a thriller. I guess it’s a drama. It’s basically about the death of a child, and a picture of that child goes through the media and changes our characters’ lives. It’s not a thriller, because that would be exploitative of the subject matter. It’s just drama – it’s a drama that every one of us, living through the course of this crisis, can relate to. And I do think the continent is definitely changing, because of that crisis. Germany is changing, and the rest of Europe is changing, so I wanted to give that change an image, a voice. I wanted to reflect on that change. This element of drama is affecting all of our characters – it’s rippling through the lives of all of them.
How do the locations affect the story?
Edward Berger: It starts in Greece, in sort of Garden Of Eden setting, which gets disturbed. The security guard stays in Greece, but the surviving African boy travels through Greece and Macedonia on the route towards [western] Europe. One of our stories takes place in Brussels and moves to France, another one in Germany, another one in Austria. I think it definitely affects the flavour of the story a lot, these different locations. It shows the variety of Europe. It doesn’t stop at language barriers and borders. It just tries to make sense of this whole mess, this whole arrangement that is Europe, and tries to put some questions out there.
What kind of research did you do?
Edward Berger: We did a lot of research and we will continue to do so. We’re planning a trip to North Africa, to Greece, to Macedonia. We have very good advisors who help us with the subject, so whenever I have a question I can call them. I know so much about Brussels now! The situation in Greece is in the papers every day, but Brussels is a machine that’s been working for two decades. That’s where we desperately needed an advisor.
It’s a story that’s constantly unfolding – were you daunted by that?
Edward Berger: It was always the case before we started writing, and while writing it we realized that it was going to be changing all the time. So we decided to stay away from everyday politics and deal with the specifics of the characters. So, for example, the Greek security guard is overwhelmed by his guilt, because he shot someone, and that’s timeless. It could happen in a different crisis: Iit’s not really tied to what’s actually happening. That said, little things can be adapted as we go along.
Your last series, “Deutschland 83”, was a huge hit. Did you expect that?
Edward Berger: [Laughs] You never know. Also, because you’re so much under pressure. You like what you’re working on, so you hope other people will like it too. But you never know. So the Berlin Film Festival was a good test. You felt that the audience liked it, there was a good vibe in the room. It sold really well, and the fact that other countries were interested in that story, made it pretty clear that it was going to be popular. But you can’t plan a hit.
Is there anything in particular that you learned from that’s series’ success?
Edward Berger: I think it was just a case of staying true to the material. With “Deutschland 83” the music really helped, the time period also helped – it helps when people have fun watching something. But unfortunately there’s nothing you can learn from it, nothing you can apply to the next show – I can’t stick fun ’70s and ’80s pop music into this one. You just have to hope people will be interested again.
What is the appeal of the mini series format for you?
Edward Berger: It always really depends on the material. With this series, it’s a long, vast conglomerate of ideas – it’s too much for two hours. It’s a big treat, I think, to have the possibility to make it longer. However, I’m a big movie fan, and I think there’s a bit of a bubble going on with series. Suddenly, everyone wants to make series. I love the movies and I don’t want to forget them. I have another story that I’m writing that is just not a series, it’s just a film – it’s just 100 minutes or so. There’s nothing more to tell about that story! It’s very specific – one story, one event. So it really always depends on the idea. And a series only interests me if I can shoot it in a cinematic way. The series aesthetic really has changed now – I don’t make a difference in the way I shoot. You don’t have to use close-ups all the time. You can use a wide shot, and people will find it more interesting.