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‘Hotel Beau Séjour’s’ Bert Van Dael and Sanne Nuyens on Canneseries’ ‘The Twelve’

Bert Van Dael and Sanne Nuyens
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CANNES — In Series Mania’s 2016 Audience Award Winner, “Hotel Beau Séjour,” co-created by Belgium’s Bert Van Dael and Sanne Nuyens and picked up by Netflix as a Netflix Original, a young women wakes up as a corpse. She sets out to solve her own murder.

Van Dael and Nuyens’ follow-up, “The Twelve,” which plays in Canneseries main competition and weighs in as an ensemble psychological thriller which they showran and wrote, begins with a woman who’s not dead but most certainly broken: Fri Palmers, once a respected school.

She’s first seen now squatting on her prison cell’s floor, listening to her lawyer’s plea to pull herself together. In a court case that has shocked Belgium, Palmers stands accused of two murders, of her best friend Britt in 2000,  and now, 18 years later, of slitting the throat of her own infant daughter.

Cut to a woman, a mother of three, married to an tyrannical husband, dashing to court to see if she is picked as a juror. As the trial begins, “The Twelve” plumbs the lives of the 12 jurors, and two potential replacements, as it also flashbacks to the circumstances of the two murders. Palmers is obviously hiding a lot, but so may her egocentric ex-husband, once Britt’s boyfriend.

As “The Twelve” builds, the jurors seem as unreliable – scarred, prejudiced and compromised by the past, unsettled by their responsibility. And that’s not only the jury. One crucial witness, the police officer on charge of the case for 16 years who declares he is not convinced Fri Palmers is guilty, has been bought off by the victim’s father. The murder trial, as the synopsis notes, becomes a trial not only of the accused but of the jury members and investigating police themselves.

“The Twelve” is directed by Wouter Bouvijn and produced by Gunter Schmid and Peter Bouckaert at at Eyeworks Films & TV Drama, one of Belgium’s biggest content creators, as well as TV network Eén. Federation iEntertainment is making inroads into Flemish drama, also presenting at MipTV “Floodlands,” produced by Eyeworks and Column Film for VRT’s Eén and Avro-Tros.

After the large success of “Hotel Beau Séjour,” why create a court room thriller?

We already developed this idea with our producer Peter Bouckaert of Eyeworks during the time we wrote “Hotel Beau Séjour.” There was a big public debate about jury duty in Belgium that we found enormously interesting. The previous government tried to eradicate the jury system in which twelve citizens decide upon guilt and penalty of the defendant, because it basically was too expensive. They wanted a reduced system where three judges and four citizens would come to a decision. But it turned out to be unconstitutional.

We found it thought provoking to focus on the ordinary people that get drawn by lot for jury duty. Most of the courtroom dramas we know focus on the lawyers or the defendant, but we really wanted to have the point of view of normal people.

After “Hotel Beau Séjour” which focused on a more supernatural theme of life and death, it was our intention in ‘The Twelve’ to focus on the ordinary dilemmas we face in our daily lives.

One thing is whether Palmers is guilty, another whether she is convicted.  ”The Twelve’s” screenplay appears to work on multiple levels; dropping clues, false or not, via flashbacks, as to whether Fri Palmers is really guilty, or the real identity of the killer, maybe in both cases; drilling down on the deep bias of the jury, which could swing their vota; gradually building a sense of how the jury could vote, given their life experience. Could you comment?

We put a lot of time in the research of our show. We really wanted to get to know how it felt inside a jury room. How much bias do we take with us? Every person has a background. How much of personal background defines our judgements?  These were the ultimate questions for us while developing the series.

We talked discreetly with quite a few ex-jurors. We really knew we had a show when one of the ex-jurors told us about her terrorizing husband while being on jury duty. She said she recognized traits of her jealous husband in the defendant and told us she feared ending up like the victim when she would stay with her husband. After her jury duty she finally had the courage to leave her husband. It was the jury duty that changed her life. But it was also her own personal life that found the defendant convicted.

A jury supposedly votes without fear or hatred, to use a phrase in the swearing in of witnesses at the trial. “The Twelve” questions this and with it on bases of the judicial system. Do you see this as synching with the zeitgeist, and its general questioning of authority? 

We admire shows that connect with deeper layers in society.

We knew that ‘The Twelve’ would put ourselves right in the middle of this big debate about the need for juries in the Belgian judicial system. We talked extensively with a lot of players in the field about this: Judges, politicians, lawyers, prosecutors, jurors.

And the interesting fact for us was that our series encompasses both the good and the bad of the jury system. We feel that there’s something really good to say about juries, and we feel that there’s bad things to say.

We hope ‘The Twelve’ shows both sides after ten episodes because this is very much how we feel. Maybe a jury system is not per se the best or the most fair system, but it could very well be ‘the best system we have at hand’.

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Thomas Nolf / VRT Eyeworks

To deliver a just verdict, the jurors will be asked to put prejudice aside and listen to viewpoints which they vehemently oppose. That seems highly resonant in a partyised, polarized contemporary world. Again, cold you comment?

Agreed, and we think the final deliberation in episode 10 will also show this. We are very polarized, and people act on it. They hardly listen to each other. It’s one of the arguments a character in the show will bring forward.

But maybe there’s also a problem of our definition of what prejudice or bias is. We think our show also questions the legal need to “put prejudice aside.” We all have our different backgrounds as a person, and maybe it’s next to impossible to be completely “free of bias.” Maybe we should try to embrace this as well and try to listen to each other from within our bias.

We don’t think our show gives an answer to these questions. We think it raises the question more than answering it. But we do think that’s already a very valuable step. Maybe one day there will be a good answer to it.

As showrunners, did you decide on the general direction of the show, its look, or cast? If so, what were in or two your principal decisions?

Yes, as showrunners we oversaw the whole production from casting till post-production. We worked very closely together with director Wouter Bouvijn who did an amazing job as a young and first time director, and with our experienced producers Gunter Schmid and Peter Bouckaert.

We divided our work. Sanne oversaw the whole pre-production and was present at every casting session. Bert was on set when they filmed all the courtroom and jury scenes, and oversaw the whole post-production. He was in editing every day.

We were very lucky to work with the most renowned Flemish actors. It’s one of the biggest ensemble casts in Belgian TV history we think, and we were very fortunate to have such an amazing cast. It’s something we’re very proud of, and we think our strong team made it possible to bring this talent together.

Because of the magnitude of the show it was also very important to be in the editing. We shifted quite a few scenes between episodes to make our show much stronger and more focused.

Between 2005 and 2014, Eyeworks produced 16 features and three TV series, from 2015 eight features, 11 series. Do you feel part of a building Belgian or Flemish drama series production scene? If so, does it have any hallmarks?

Absolutely. Belgian drama is expanding its horizon and thanks to our Belgian tax shelter system, we have more means to produce high-quality TV shows.

We personally feel very much inspired by this new generation of TV drama. We are genuinely delighted to watch our friends and colleagues’ work. Only in the last year, drama shows such as “The Day” and “Tabula Rasa” were standouts in Belgian TV. There’s also a big crossover between cinema and TV  talent, and it’s a healthy competitive environment. It’s great to bring in our friends during our work process. They are very critical and try to push us to new horizons. The same goes for the network VRT and the VAF (flemish audiovisual fund).

But we do feel that we must nurture our talent and that we have to keep on investing in out-of-the-box ideas. Great fiction cannot repeat itself. So we hope to have the continuous support from the government, and the networks, and hope that younger talent will also keep emerging.