International TV drama’s golden age is continuing. As buyers and sellers from around the world congregate in Cannes, Variety speaks to the stars, writers, and distributors of 10 of the scripted series that will be the talk of the Croisette.
The Bisexual (pictured top left)
Desiree Akhavan wrote the first draft of “The Bisexual” right after premiering her indie film “Appropriate Behaviour” at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, and then spent a year developing it. Having moved to London she took the script out in the U.K. and partnered with Jane Featherstone’s hot indie, Sister Pictures. Just as her movie “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” was greenlit, Channel 4 ordered “The Bisexual” to series.
Akhavan and longtime collaborator Cecilia Frugiuele co-wrote the show. Akhavan also directs, and stars as Leila, a New Yorker in London. Having split with her girlfriend and business partner Sadie (Maxine Peake), she moves in with a flatmate she finds on the internet, Gabe (Brian Gleeson). She starts dating men, with her new flatmate as wingman.
Channel 4’s USP is breaking new ground and the network says the show is “an honest look at the last taboo, bisexuality.” Akhavan is knowingly taboo-busting. “I think all good comedy has an awareness of what it’s saying and the politics behind the jokes,” she says.
Shot and set in Hackney, east London, the comedy riffs on an outsider’s view of the British capital. Making the show in the U.K. also meant greater creative freedom. “I was given a long leash,” Akhavan says. “My notes from Channel 4 when we gave the scripts in were ‘take it further.’ In America I always felt there was this pressure to remain marketable to the four quadrants.”
That said, Akhavan always knew the show would appeal to an American audience. Hulu agreed and has it for the U.S.
A Movistar+ original series sold by Beta Film, Spain’s “El Embarcadero” (“The Pier”) weighs in as one of Mipcom’s most anticipated new international dramas. That’s only to be expected. It marks writer-producers Alex Pina and Esther Martínez Lobato’s follow-up to “Money Heist,” described by Netflix in April as its most-watched non-English drama series ever.
It also re-teams Pina and Martinez Lobato’s production house Vancouver Media with Spanish broadcast network Atresmedia, co-producer of the first two parts of “Money Heist.”
That said, “The Pier” marks a change of direction for Pina and Martínez Lobato, who calls it “an emotional thriller, a move outside our comfort zone, a story with no guns.”
In “The Pier,” a 40-year-old architect, Alejandra, after her husband’s death, sets out to encounter Verónica, the woman with whom her husband led a double life. “It’s a highly feminine journey of self-discovery, growth, and sensuality,” says Martinez Lobato.
Alejandra lives in a fast-paced, near futuristic Valencia. Veronica lives in the extraordinary marshlands and paddy fields of nearby L’Albufera. “ ‘The Pier’ constantly confronts two worlds and the two people in any person in a story whose backbone is its emotions,” Pina adds.
(Endemol Shine Intl.)
“The Fall” was Jamie Dornan’s breakout role. It paired him with “The X-Files’” Gillian Anderson in a cat-and-mouse serial killer drama set in Northern Ireland. The action has now moved to Lyon, France, with “Insoupconnable” for TF1. Melvil Poupaud plays the psychiatrist, family man, and twisted killer Paul Brodsky. Emmanuelle Seigner is Chloé Fisher, the criminologist on his trail.
As with the original, the killer’s identity is revealed at the start of the show, ramping up the tension among him, his victims and pursuers. Artists Studio made the U.K. series, which sold to NBCUniversal in France. The new local-language version was made by French shingle Léonis for Endemol Shine Fiction France, and written by Virginie Brac, one of France’s best-known screenwriters.
“Insoupconnable” will be one of Endemol Shine Intl.’s big scripted launches for Mipcom. CEO Cathy Payne says the French version sticks closely to the U.K.-produced original. “This is very similar, it’s a true remake,” she says.
The demand for non-English-language drama and the likes of “Insoupconnable” comes from the newer buyers, she adds. “I think the big demand in non-English scripted has definitely been from OTT services, and from some public broadcasters. I think OTT showed that there was an audience.”
Richard Gere returns to TV after almost 30 years in BBC Studios’ “MotherFatherSon.” He plays Max, who has risen from humble roots to oversee a media empire. The series follows events after a crisis hits his powerful family.
“Richard has this incredible ambiguity, which is very rare,” says writer Tom Rob Smith (“The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story”). “He can make darkness seductive, he doesn’t come down clearly on one side or another, there’s a real complexity. That was key for this family. We are not saying one person is good or bad … everyone had to be both intensely lovable and intensely damaged.”
Witnessing a friend having to relearn speech and movement and undergo “an accelerated childhood” in the wake of a stroke was the starting point for Smith. “The process of rehabilitation is incredibly emotional, intense, and powerful as a human story,” he says. “[I then asked] what would be the world you could set this in, what would be the most powerful?” The backdrop he chose was big media.
The protagonist suffering the stroke is Caden, played by Billy Howle (“On Chesil Beach”). Helen McCrory (“Peaky Blinders”) is Kathryn, the mother of the title, and Max’s estranged wife.
When Max’s powerful clan suffers a crisis, the effects are felt widely, setting up both a family and political drama. “We are going into a family in crisis and trauma who are very raw and exposed,” Smith says. “You get to the politics through the family … and you see the repercussions are played out across the entire country.”
The Name of the Rose
Umberto Eco’s historical murder-mystery “The Name of the Rose” is one of the best-selling books of all time. A $27 million series adaptation will hit the small screen in 2019.
The 1980s movie version had Sean Connery as William Baskerville, the Franciscan monk investigating a series of mysterious killings in a 14th century Italian monastery. John Turturro takes that role in the current series, which is helmed by veteran Italian TV director Giacomo Battiato. The cast also includes Rupert Everett as merciless inquisitor Bernard Gui, Michael Emerson as the abbot, and rising star Damian Hardung as Baskerville’s novice, Adso.
Turturro wanted the series to truly reflect Eco’s novel, which has sold more than 50 million copies. “I started writing to Giacomo to say ‘why isn’t there more Eco?’ This is eight hours, you don’t have to reduce it,” he says.
“I thought it was a very relevant book, maybe more at this particular time than even when it came out,” Turturro says. “Whether it’s the [political] strong men who are in vogue … the [modern-day] scandals in the church, men’s oppression of women, it’s all in the book. There’s also a whole sleuth aspect, and a mathematical aspect.”
“The Name of the Rose” will bow next year on Italian pubcaster Rai, and U.S. cable net SundanceTV and its streaming service Sundance Now. It is produced by Italian shingles 11 Marzo Film and Palomar, as a copro with Germany’s Tele Munchen Group. It was shot in Italy, including in Rome’s historic Cinecitta Studios.
An Ordinary Woman
“An Ordinary Woman” is one of the first contemporary drama series out of Russia for international buyers, it’s from distributor Cineflix Rights.
It first came to international attention at Series Mania, where it was in the official selection. Anna Mikhalkova scooped the actress prize for her role as the titular ordinary woman, Marina. She runs a florists shop in Moscow and has a seemingly idyllic life, with a surgeon husband and daughter at university. Marina is, however, also running a network of prostitutes using WhatsApp. When one of the girls is found dead, her world is turned upside down.
Julien Leroux, Cineflix’s recently installed SVP, global scripted co-productions, says he initially went after the format rights with a remake in mind, but ended up also securing the rights to the finished show.
“There have not been a lot of Russian dramas [like this] on the market,” Leroux says. “There have been a lot of big, epic period dramas, but not a modern crime series like ‘An Ordinary Woman.’ It’s a look into today’s Russia, but mostly a universal story. What I loved was it was so grounded.”
The show is made by 1-2-3 Production and Look Film for Russian channel TV-3. Russian helmer Boris Khlebnikov (“Arrhythmia”) directs. Tonally the series echoes the Nordic noir shows that have travelled well. “It’s absolutely in the same space as the Scandi series,” Leroux says.
“Tabula Rasa” on Netflix is among the crop of Belgian dramas getting traction internationally. ZDF Enterprises heads into Mipcom with what it hopes is a new breakout series from the country, “Over Water.”
The 10-parter follows John Beckers, a once-famous TV personality who lost everything by drinking and gambling. He has a shot at redemption through working for his family’s shipping business, but has to face new temptations and old demons.
Tom Lenaerts and Paul Baeten Gronda wrote the show. Multihyphenate Lenaerts is an actor, TV host and founder of Belgian shingle Panenka, which made the series.
The Port of Antwerp provides a backdrop to the action, with the international cocaine trade an element of the series. “We have written and shot a family psychological drama, it’s not a drug or crime drama … the crime is like in ‘The Sopranos,’ it is in the background. It’s more about the human relationships and stresses in these situations,” Gronda says.
The series is a co-prod between broadcaster VRT and cabler Telenet. A second season is greenlit and production is under way.
ZDFE drama boss Robert Franke says “Over Water” offers a blend of genres that give it international appeal. “We think we can bring it to free TV players and pay-TV and SVOD because of [that] special nature, which is something you don’t find very often,” he says.
Project Blue Book
Unidentified flying objects may be a rare sight on the Croisette, but Aidan Gillen will be in town with his new UFO-investigation series “Project Blue Book.” The “Game of Thrones” star toplines the series as Dr. J. Allen Hynek, a brilliant college professor recruited by the U.S. Air Force to look into UFOs and related phenomena as part of a clandestine operation codenamed Project Blue Book. Set in the 1950s and 1960s the show draws on real case files.
The series was developed by A+E studios for History in the U.S., which handed it a straight-to-series 10-episode order. It bows on the cable net this winter.
Robert Zemeckis is executive producing. “ ‘Project Blue Book’ is the perfect fusion of historical fact and extraordinary entertainment,” he tells Variety. “Above all, it’s a timely, thrilling mystery that asks questions about the unknown as well as illuminating the dangers of government secrecy and earth-shattering truths.”
A+E Studios is producing with Compari Entertainment, which is part of Zemeckis’ ImageMovers. David O’Leary created the show and also an exec producer. Sean Jablonski (“Suits”) is another writer and the series showrunner and will also be at Mipcom. “‘Project Blue Book’ falls into the realm of fact is far stranger than fiction,” Zemeckis says.
Valley of the Boom
(Fox Networks Group Content Distribution)
Matthew Carnahan (“House of Lies”) is the showrunner and David Newsom oversaw the unscripted side of the drama-meets-documentary series of the 1990s tech boom and bust for Nat Geo. They spent almost a year researching the show.
Talking heads for the factual side include Mark Cuban and Arianna Huffington. The latter is also an exec producer. Tech luminaries including TheGlobe.com founders Stephan Paternot and Todd Krizelman appear as themselves. In the drama, they are played by Dakota Shapiro and Oliver Cooper respectively.
Bradley Whitford stars as the former Netscape boss Jim Barksdale. Steve Zahn plays the unhinged Michael Fenne, boss of dotcom disaster Pixelon. “If we had done him as outrageous as he actually is it would be hard to believe” Carnahan says of the latter, a seemingly larger-than-life tech entrepreneur, who turned out to be a convicted con man.
“Valley of the Boom” is largely scripted, but breaks to the real-life interviews. “It was really about what does the scripted hold in terms of our ability to push the narrative forward and what does the documentary piece hold, and where can we get the most out of each one,” Carnahan says.
The War of the Worlds
(ITV Studios Global Ent.)
Aliens will invade U.K. screens in the British TV adaptation of H.G. Wells’ classic “War of the Worlds,” and ITV Studios will be give the Martians a global launch pad at Mipcom.
Adaptations of the classic story have often moved the action to the U.S. and given it a contemporary backdrop. The new version, for BBC One and made by ITV-backed producer Mammoth Screen (“Victoria”), sticks more closely to Wells’ work. Rafe Spall (“The Big Short”), Eleanor Tomlinson (“Poldark”) and Robert Carlyle (“Once Upon a Time”) star.
“It’s the first time there has been an adaptation set in the period and geography in which it was written, but there are also some differences,” Spall says. One, he notes, is the prominence afforded to the female star of the piece, and another is giving a modern-day drama feel to a period piece.
Spall plays George who has left a loveless marriage to set up home with Amy (Tomlinson) in suburbia and, in turn, faces disapproval from wider society. Carlyle is Ogilvy, an astronomer and scientist. The three-part series tells their story as they battle an alien invasion, setting up a heady period-drama-meet-science-fiction mix.
“Hopefully people who are familiar with the story or love the book will be happy with its representation on screen,” Spall says. “And those who weren’t familiar with the book or story, like myself, will be impressed, surprised and amazed by it — a show starting out like a regular period piece and then aliens come and try to obliterate humankind.”