Director Hans Herbots on ‘The Swell’ and Dealing With Social Issues Through Fiction

‘The Swell’ is more than just a disaster drama with good VFX, Herbots maintains.

The Swell
Laurens De Geyter

One of Europe’s top TV ratings performers this year – along with SVT’s “Before We Die,” sold by ZDF Enterprises, and Mediaset España’s “I Know Who You Are,” distributed by ME and Filmax – Dutch disaster series “The Swell” punched 25%-29% market shares in the Netherlands from Nov. 5 on TV channel NPO1.

Better still, it delivered 39% to 44.8% shares in Belgium on EEN from a Nov. 28 bow. Though Belgium is the Netherlands’ neighbor, very few Dutch or Belgium TV shows have made much ratings impact in their neighbors’s country.

But it’s easy to see why. The six-part limited series – which is also being sold by Dutch Features as a two-part miniseries – was a pioneering Dutch-Belgium co-production, which tapped into Belgium tax breaks, allowing a bigger budget and production values. Herbot himself also has a depth of experience on screens big and small such as 2012 thriller “The Treatment”; his 2012 series “The Spiral” was nominated for an International Emmy. The series is big scale, but packed not only with VFX but affecting relationship-driven storylines.

“The Swell” also plays off national identity. It begins with a once-in-10,000 years tempest rapidly advancing towards the shared Dutch-Belgian coastline. The Hubris of a people who often recite the motto “God made the Earth but the Dutch made Holland” is evident from the start as nearly everyone involved shirks warnings and science because they have surely had storms like this one in the past. Tearing through the Dutch dikes, the storm dramatically opens a gateway to the sea returning much of the Netherlands to below sea water.

Once the storm has settled, the series shifts gears and focuses on rebuilding: How people and a nation can try to get back to some sense of normalcy. Perhaps the series’ most poignant parts, considering the current global climate on the subject, is the way people effectively become refugees in their own country. Later stretches of the series take place in re-purposed stadiums, camps, or overcrowded and under-supplied homes in upper levels of buildings overlooking flooded city streets.

In the run-up to Series Mania, Herbots fielded questions from Variety about his directorial decision-making process, how to create special effects on a budget, and how to talk about important social issues without being preachy.

The show looks fantastic: Can you talk about the budget and how you handled the VFX?

The budget was about €750,000 ($795,000) an episode, which is very small compared to U.K. or U.S. series. When you don’t have a lot of money, you need to be creative: really think beforehand about what you want to show on the screen and what you want to tell and show in a different way, for example, through news reports or even through the radio news. So we had a lot of prep meetings with the VFX guys about how to shoot certain things with a minimum budget and maximum result.

This series was a Dutch-Belgium co-production, a partnership that has not historically been common. Can you talk about that a bit?

If the story allows it, I really like co-productions, because it widens the options: the budget is often bigger, and you get to work with crews and actors from other countries, which can be really interesting. I did that before with “The Spiral,” which was a European co-production with Scandinavia and The Netherlands. For “The Swell,” the network wanted to work with a Belgian director, as they like our tone and visual language. I think we have a strong tradition of storytelling in Flanders, which really has given our productions an own identity. And there is the VAF [Flemish Audiovisual Funds] which has been very good AT developing an industry with strong local producers. That is starting to show major benefits.

Winter weather in Holland and Belgium can be pretty gray and rainy. How much could you use the real weather when filming and how much of the weather is manipulated?

Because of tight budgets, it’s hard to change schedules at the last moment. Half the series is really wet and windy and the second half should be dry and more open. we had to re-schedule a few things because it was too rainy when it should have been dry, but that’s about it. I know that seems a bit odd.

A bit ironic yeah

It was really frustrating. There is a scene when the swell comes up into a little house and we had to shoot that on a sunny day. Very annoying: It limited the choices and the angles that we could take as well as the hours we could shoot. Winters don’t seem to be that bad anymore. That was a big problem for us.

How accurate is the weather science in the show?

The predictions and what we say about the weather is really accurate, although a storm like that only happens once every 10,000 years. When researching the subject, we talked to a lot to the people that work on disaster programs. A nice extra thing about this show is that it makes people aware of existing problems. You never know what will happen if a real storm like that hits the shores.

The series starts out as a disaster series, but by the third episode the storm. Can you talk about this change in theme?

There have been lots of movies already about disasters so that was not our goal. We wanted to show how a storm or disaster affects people’s lives. Most of the time people just want to go back to normal but how do you go back to normal when normal does not exist anymore? The second half of the series is more about big reorganizations: A lot of the population that was living where the water is are assembled in refugee camps. We show how life is organized there, people as refugees in their own country.

That seems to be one of the strongest and maybe unexpected aspects of the show. It’s interesting how wealthy westerners are so appalled by being considered refugees.

It’s what we don’t know about actual refugees, people who live in camps all over the world at this moment, who were dentists, doctors, teachers, farmers. We often just see them as refugees but as you say there were everything before and they also need to adapt to that new situation. Fiction is a great tool to show people something from a different side or live something differently than what they see on the news.

What were some major decisions you made in deciding how to direct “The Swell”? What were your goals?

I was attracted to the project because a disaster like that and the impact it has on people’s lives is a strong starting point. I wanted to investigate that both out of my interest in environment but also because of the whole refugee crisis. I wanted to make it as authentic as possible. When a disaster like that happens it’s chaos. We tried to create a lot of chaos and see the impact it would have on people’s lives. Most of the stylistic decisions we made were made with that in mind. For example, most of the time we used the Mövi camera movement system, which is a great and not-so-expensive camera tool that allows you to make long fluent takes, almost like a Steadicam. That enhances the feeling of being there with the actors, living it with them.