Post-Apocalypse Noir, linking three of France’s powerhouses – it’s a Canal Plus original series, produced by Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp TV and sold by Vivendi/Canal Plus’ Studiocanal, a powerful combo – with Olivier Marchal, a distinguished film director (“36 Quai des Orfevres”), auteur also of Canal Plus’ brutal, downbeat cop original series “Braquo,” one of its biggest hit original series and export successes.
Set in a world just some years in the future, after societal breakdown, melding elements of French “polar” crime thriller and, as EuropaCorp’s Edouard de Vesinne says, crepuscular Western, “Section Zéro” turns on a cop, Sirius Becker, who still has a code of honor in a world of class-cordoned urban dystopia, crime and corruption, ruled by a bottom-line-obsessed Corporation. Defined by his work – I’m very good at my job, he retorts in knee-jerk reaction when criticized by his daughter — he pays a terrible price for his distance from his family as his daughter falls in with the wrong crowd as Becker and his men become one of the last lines of civil resistance to the Corporation’s attempts a total control.
Sporting the ethos and aesthetics of film noir, brutal, moody, desaturated, in typical Marchal fashion, it is the portrait of an upright man in a fallen world and of what happens to a society which loses the structures of social democracy and state aid: One of the most touching scenes in the first episode was one of Becker’s fellow cops reading alone to his aged father. One of France’s big, big fiction plays this year, “Section Zero” bowed on Canal Plus April 4. Variety interviewed EuropaCorp TV’s Edouard de Vesinne and “Section Zero” star Pascal Greggory, who plays the ruling corporation’s seemingly blithely amoral chief executive.
“Section Zero” represents the new face of French TV drama production, made with scale and ambition, and not just for domestic audiences. How much higher is the budget of “Section Zero” to the average range of free-to-air dramas in France? And how much of its revenues need to come from international for EuropaCorp TV to break even?
Edouard de Vesinne: Yes, “Section Zero” is very expensive for a French show, but it’s not out of control either. And yet, Olivier Marchal worked on “Section Zero” as if it were a film, with the same ambition; he brought his usual team — his cinematographer and first assistant director. Each episode is budgeted at €2 million. We were able to finance it in France with a significant investment from Canal Plus and a minimum guarantee from Studiocanal, which handles international sales, as well as the Belgian tax shelter. We did the post-production in Belgium. If we do a second season and if the international sales are good, we’ll break even. We showed a 15-minute promo here at MipTV which has received a great feedback from buyers, so we’re optimistic. The ratings in France will be key in driving those deals.
Did you consider making it in English-language since it’s such a high concept show?
Edouard de Vesinne: We could not have made this show in English because it’s a series created by Olivier Marchal, so it’s his universe, atmosphere and he envisioned it with French actors, sharp French dialogue. It would have been totally artificial to make “Section Zero” in English. But it could be adapted into an American series because I think the format is very remake-friendly. What works with this show is that it’s an ambitious format that’s got Marchal’s touch: His energy, empathy and his characters who are all vulnerable, ambivalent and a bit crazy.
Pascal Greggory: Olivier is an actors’ director; he’s an actor as well, and he enjoys tremendously working closely with his cast to get the best of them. He couldn’t have done this with American or British actors.
What did you think when Olivier Marchal approached you with the script and offered you this part?
Pascal Greggory: Nothing shocks me. It’s the relationship with the director that matters to me. I had only seen ‘36 Quai des Orfevres’ and had never worked with him. We talked and I liked what he said. He was very straightforward. We talked very openly about the character he wanted me to play. He had the passion and the energy of a teenager with big dreams and I loved that about him. And I love people who are a bit mad.
Olivier Marchal is known for making very dark-edged, down-beat series such as the first season of “Braquo.” Would you say that he pushed those limits even further with “Section Zero”? What would you call the hallmark traits of Olivier Marchal’s direction?
Edouard de Vesinne: I think that darkness is what characterizes Olivier’s work and what makes it compelling, singular. And people respond to it because Olivier talks with his heart and his guts. He has a soul.
Pascal Greggory: It even worked with me because I’m a sort of a good samaritan! It’s always interesting to get people out of their comfort zone, desacralize situations or places (with cops transgressing laws for instance). Olivier is truly popular even if he’s on the margins.
Can you describe your role?
Pascal Greggory: I’m the bastard of the story. My character is a lost case, but he has a human side as well. He’s just an ordinary guy who’s doing his job as a Nazi would.
It’s your first TV series, right?
Pascal Greggory: Yes it’s my first series, and it was a real pleasure to have this first experience working on such an ambitious, pioneering series. So I’m doing another TV series, actually it’s a miniseries for M6 [a commercial French channel].
“Section Zero” is basically a critique of rampant capitalism. Would you agree?
Yes, this series has a political bent. It takes place in the near future and states are bankrupted, they have been bought by conglomerate, where the rich people live confined being walls. It’s a desperate vision — Olivier has a somber vision of the world; and usually when he works on series and films, he has to stick to a certain realism, but this time he was able to let his imagination run wide.
Can you talk about the allegorical aspect of the series?
Pascal Greggory: The society of “Section Zero” isn’t far from ours. The people who are in that society are our children; they’ve known our world. But we’re not in “Star Wars” and no one is going to get saved by gadgets. There is a technological acceleration with drones, etc., but essentially it’s a society that has regressed. This group of former cops defends their values and are willing to sacrifice themselves to help each other.
Why do you think there is such a scarcity of science fiction series made in France?
Pascal Greggory: It’s definitely linked to the financial constraints. We don’t have the same budgets here as in the U.S. for instance. A science fiction film or TV series is naturally expensive because it requires special effects.
Edouard de Vesinne: But even in the U.S. there aren’t that many science-fiction shows getting made. When you see “Star Wars” or “Avatar” in the theaters it’s hard to measure up on the small screen. As for “Section Zero,” it’s more of an anticipation series than a science fiction one. We’re closer to “Children of Men” than “Star Wars.” There are few science fiction scenes, but the ones we have are well-polished and impactful. The rest of the series is a kind of a crepuscular Western.
So what’s next for the show?
Olivier Marchal is writing the second season with Nicolas Tackian, a science fiction novelist and TV director. Olivier Marchal, Nicolas Tackian and Canal Plus are working on the script.