Series Mania: ‘Midnight Sun’ World Premieres in Paris to Warm Applause

Banner Canal Plus-SVT high-end drama underscores Vivendi, SVT international drama ambitions and - with ‘Midnight Sun’ - potential appeal

Jour Polaire - Midnight Sun
Courtesy: Studio

PARIS: Taking control of Mediaset’s pay-TV operation on April 8, France’s Vivendi is not just looking to Southern Europe for growth. “Midnight Sun,” the first fruit of Vivendi-owned Canal Plus’ drive into Scandinavian co-production, world premiered Tuesday evening at Series Mania, a fast-building Paris TV fest.

Backed by Canal Plus and SVT, in what is billed as the first France-Sweden co-production, and produced by Lagardère Studios’ Paris-based Atlantique Productions and Stockholm’s Nice Drama, part of the Modern Times Group, it played to hearty and heartfelt applause at the end of its first two episodes at a jam-packed Series Mania world premiere screening.

That is more than a passing detail. One large question raised by Vivendi’s buy-up of Mediaset Premium, the Italian broadcaster’s pay TV operation – or indeed Sky’s integration of its pay TV operations in the U.K., Germany and Italy – is if Canal Plus series could ever really appeal to mass Italian pay TV audiences. “Midnight Sun” looks like an early and possibly positive answer.

Sold by the Canal Plus-owned Studiocanal, the high-concept and high-end murder–mystery thriller is also high-profile addition to the now-globalizing cannon of Nordic Noir TV series, “Midnight Sun” also confirms a sea-change in European scripted TV production. Just five years ago, most dramas were made for local markets. But “right now, more and more producers are thinking not only locally but on an European level, trying to find shows that will work in whole Europe,” said Atlantique co-head Olivier Bibas. “Midnight Sun” underscores multiple new parameters for Europe’s now vigorously ramping-up high-end TV drama production.

One is the battle for writing talent. Compared to the U.S., Europe’s writing talent pool is relatively shallow. From an idea by Nice Drama founders Henrik Jansson-Schweizer and Patrick Nebout, before Nebout moved to Atlantique Productions, “Midnight Sun” forms part of a co-development pact between Nice Drama and Atlantique.

Filmpool Nord, which runs the Swedish Lapland Film Commission, GMT Productions, a top French TV producer, and Nordisk Film & TV Fund have also backed the production.

“We developed it for quite a while but it wasn’t until Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein came on board that the show really took off,” said Stefan Baron, Nice Drama head of intl. co-productions.

Tapping into Mårlind and Stein, who created and directed “Midnight Sun,” with Mårlind also writing, its producers some of the few non-U.S with an international track-record: The duo served as main writers and producers on “Bron/Broen” (The Bridge), a Swedish-Danish murder-mystery thriller co-produced by SVT and Denmark’s DR, aired in 160 countries and remade in the the U.K./France as the Sky-Canal Plus-backed “The Tunnel,” a hit on Sky, and by FX in the U.S.

“Midnight Sun’s” world premiere comes just two weeks after “Marcella,” a Netflix acquisition outside the U.K. written by “The Bridge” creator Hans Rosenfeldt, bowed on the U.K.’s ITV. In 2014, Studiocanal partnered with “Borgen” creator Adam Price, and Soren Sveistrup, behind “The Killing,” to launch SAM Productions, and distribute its series. With premium TV drama writing talent at a, well, premium, it’s little wonder ambitious European groups – think Canal Plus and Lagardere – are looking outside France casting their talent net wider, owning or having stakes in eight production houses around Europe. European co-productions rep one natural result.

Just as the “The Bridge” kicked in with a hook – a body cut in half at the waist on the Denmark/Sweden body in the middle of the Copenhagen-Malmo Oresund Bridge, “Midnight Sun” kick-offs with an equal tour-de-force: a man waking up to discover he’s tied to one rotor of a helicopter. He cries out for help in French and English. As the rotors swirl, the centrifugal effect forces blood to his head until its wrenched off. Blood hits the camera screen.

Since the murdered man was a French citizen, Kahina Zadi (Leila Bekhti, “A Prophet”), a French police officer, is flown in to Kiruna, a small mining community in Arctic Circle Sweden, to lead the case with a local Swedish DA, Anders Harnesk (Gustaf Hammersten, “The Girl in the Dragon Tattoo”). Three more killings take place in the first two episodes. At least two, the unlikely cop partners realize, echo indigenous Sami ritual.

Tracking their investigations, the series is shot in English – the language Kahina uses to talk to Harnesk, Swedish and French, as Kiruna reports back to her boss.

“Different languages are spoken organically. That’s a really big thing. There are still countries where dubbing is predominant. But things are moving,” Baron said.

Language can be a challenge. Bekhti is one of France’s most highly regarded actresses of her generation.

“This project scared me at first because you have no idea how bad my English was – I didn’t even know the days of the week — but when I realized it was from the creators of Bron,’ I immediately came on board. I’m a big fan of Scandinavian series like ‘Bron”’ and ‘The Killing,’” Bekhti said in a Q & A after the Series Mania screening. She worked for one year  with an English coach and even lived with her in Kiruna.

“Midnight Sun” also works hard and from the first two episodes seen in Paris very well to establish a sense of singular place: Lapland Sweden, its lakes, bleak black mountains with snow on the upper reaches, even in round-the-clock summer time, forest, swamps, cliff bluffs, wolves – which tear apart another victim – a local Sami’s belief in an oncoming storm which will destroy everything.

If set outside the world’s main, known urban centers, TV drama these days, is almost expected to open up a new world for the viewer. “Midnight Sun” does so with relish.

Notwithstanding international co-production, “it was really important to keep a local feel to ‘Midnight Sun,’” said Baron.

“Multi-layered,” Bibas said, “Midnight Sun” turns in part on the treatment of the Swedish state of the Sami people. “As a Swede, I know more about Indians than Samis,” Stein said. “We have this goody-two-shoes image oif them standing on top of a mountain, joiking and hanging out with their reindeers. Researched, “Midnight Sun” comes in at a very different angle.

Also, it’s a darker take on human character, the crimes which people will commit for greed, even love, follows Nordic Noir trammels.

“It’s about people who sometimes do good, sometimes bad. One of the premises is that the past – childhood, previous relationships – can come back to haunt you, unless you deal with it,” said Stein. “We applied that both to the main characters and the plot as well. It’s a dark series, though it has hope.”

“Midnight Sun’s” budget was at least 35%-40% higher than normal SVT budgets, Baron said, in part because of multiple shot set-ups, including helicopter filming, and a lot of extras, action and VFX.

That shows. The first episode alone boasts an astonishing number of often breath-taking helicopter shots of Kiruna’s vast landscapes.

The show has an “international production and cast and a faraway location,” said Bibas. “We shot a bit in Morocco, a bit in Paris, but only seven days of studio shoots. 80% was in Laponia in exteriors, with the the crew living there, which was a heavy cost, and changing location almost every day. It was a complicated show to produce and also quite expensive.”

The budget also reflects the new economics and what Enders Analysis dubs the “dramatic growth race” of scripted drama entertainment. In 2016, Netflix looks set to increase its original output to 600 hours. HBO, which operates in Scandinavia, wants to increase its global output of 600 hours by 50%.

In such a context, pay TV operators such as Sky TV and Canal Plus and indeed any broadcasters have little option but to raise its output – Studiocanal bought into three more TV production houses this April, including Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sunny March TV. Or, if it can’t compete in volume, TV operators will aim to board signature shows which can crimp churn or fidelize free-to-air audiences. At stake are businesses worth €5.5 billion ($6.2 billion) in the case of Canal Plus Group, Vivendi’s biggest single asset.

“When you go in the market right now it’s very easy now to speak with networks in Europe. It was not the case three-or four years ago,” said Bibas. “I can say: ‘I’ve got this concept, I’d like to pitch it to you, please come in, let’s do it as a co-production. It’s a very open market, a very exciting time right now for co productions. It’s a big difference,” Bibas said.

European actors may not baulk at all at international productions. “Spending five months there, so far away from everything, in deserted a mining town, and working on this series for a year and a half was a truly transformative journey on a personal level,” Bekhti said.

“I got to see wolves, meet wonderful people, learned about the Sami people…. It’s just great when my job makes me more curious.”

It is also, from a writer’s standpoint, a Golden Age for TV, said Stein. The phrase has become an almost cliché, which doesn’t mean he is wrong.

“Cinema is either tent-pole or indie: There’s no middle ground. Television has taken that space where character driven stories can take place and storytellers have eight hours, not just one-and-a-half. So it’s a double gift,” said Stein.

Episodes I and 2 of “Midnight Sun” cut consistently from thriller to landscapes to character – Kiruna’s chief prosecutor inspecting the headless corpse tied to the helicopter rotor as, back in Paris, Kahina wanders the Paris streets, dazed as her personal past comes back to challenge her. Night shots of her in a taxi, street lamp light flaring across her face, capture her dazed confusion. This is the stuff of cinema, not traditional TV.

Stein went on: “When we were in the States in 2007, we were told: “Don’t mention your TV work.’ Americans right now are very interested in our TV work. It’s a bit like the ‘70s: Storytellers taking the time to develop stories and characters. That’s what happened in terms of TV today.”