HBO Europe’s ‘Success,’ its first HBO Adria original, directed by Academy Award-winner Danis Tanovic (“No Man’s Land”), kicks off with a life management guru, Kiki, on stage, under a dazzling spotlight, lecturing to an unseen audience on “six steps to success.”
“First, they fired me for having a sick son, not being able to work 12 hours a day. Then they took my apartment. Then it got worse,” Kiki remembers as “Success” flashes back to him as an unemployed designer facing eviction who does nothing when a woman, Vinca, a bank clerk, is brutally attacked a few cars in front of his on a motorway tailback.
Reproached for cowardice by his son, Kiki doesn’t hesitate the second time round, jumping in when a man begins to beat up his teen girlfriend, Blanka in his local park. His action, aided by Haris, a prestigious architect, and Vinca, leads to them killing Victor.
The consequences of the murder, even if in self-defense, turn “Success” into a crescendoing noirish thriller underscoring the collusion in a corruption-sodden Zagreb between big business, organized crime, justice and politics.
The first original from HBO Adria, and Tanovic’s first TV work as well, “Success” underscores HBO Europe’s ambitions for Central and Eastern Europe, in its director and discovery of new voices, such as screenwriter Marjan Alčevski, one of the winners of HBO’s first Adria’s First Draft contest in 2017. Critical reception has been upbeat. Variety chatted to Alčevski after his series screened at Series Mania, and in the run-up to MipTV.
Kiki’s first step to success is: “It’s about survival. Do what the rich people do, what’s good for you.” Of course, he could be wrong. Or not totally right. There’s a suggestion, even in the series’ first stretches, that Haris is happier discovering a conscience, and refusing to deliver plan for a massive but dangerous New Zagreb inner-city regeneration scheme; that Blanca and Kiki discover self-respect and a sense of solidarity, plus mentor figures, in their friendship with Haris and Vinka. Could you comment?
The four characters come from different backgrounds but they feel they are in the same boat. Knowing they’re not alone empowers them in strange ways. On the face of it Haris and Vinka are better off but does that make them more competent? They all feel cornered and they all feel a need to lash out.
As it builds in momentum, I sense that “Success” aims keep three balls in the air: the (sometimes) thriller narrative drive; the social commentary; the exploration of characters. How did you set out to achieve this?
My main interest are the characters. The social commentary is why I wrote the show and the thriller is there because TV should be fun as well. I wanted the story to be compelling to catch and hold the viewer’s interest so that I could, then, also deliver the commentary I feel it’s important.
Ep. 1 has excruciating scenes of sexism, attempted rape, a father beating his daughter, a husband accusing his wife of provoking a brutal attack because of the look of superiority in her eyes. Were you at all influenced by movements such as MeToo, or is this a reflection of Croatian realities, or both?
MeToo happened while I was writing but while it did not inspire me I am aware of catching the zeitgeist. For years now the reality for women in Croatia has been becoming more bleak and it was never great to begin with. In the show my intent was to present the female characters as victims and then flip that old narrative as the story progresses. How we treat women in society and how we treat them in stories are related. I aimed to subvert the latter.
How did you work with HBO Europe, whether in script notes or discussions of what you wanted to achieve with the series?
Working with the HBO development execs helped me focus on what I truly wanted to say with “Success”: something is wrong with the world. This was my first high-end drama and their experience was crucial. They found the story and characters compelling so it was an easy process no matter how demanding it was also.
Asked recently to name growth regions for high-end TV, Beta Film’s Jan Mojto suggested Eastern Europe. I suspect that takes in Croatia. What is your take on the state and potential for high-end drama in the Adriatic region outside Italy?
The Adria region has great potential for high-end TV drama. I feel that given a chance we can rise to the occasion and tell stories about ourselves that the world could enjoy. We are a small market and the opportunities are few and far between. But in a world that’s going astray. this region, the Balkans, is the place where we live and say stuff like: “Welcome to where we’ve been for a while.W
You said that ”Success” was “born out of desperation.” Given the success of “Success,” what’s driving you now?
I’m a writer, so it doesn’t take much for me to feel desperate. The expectations that arise from the show’s success are quite enough for me. The stories that I wish to tell seem to have an audience.