Thriller series “Red Light” world premieres Sunday as part of the competition section of Canneseries. Variety spoke to its stars and co-creators Halina Reijn and Carice van Houten, and writer Esther Gerritsen.
In the show, Van Houten, who played Melisandre in “Game of Thrones,” plays Sylvia, a brothel madam in Antwerp’s red light district. Reijn is opera singer Esther, and Maaike Neuville plays Evi, a woman struggling to be both a good mother and a detective solving brutal crimes.
The three women get caught up in the world of human trafficking and prostitution when Esther’s husband – a philosophy professor – disappears. From completely different backgrounds the lives of these women intertwine and they find out they need each other to get out of the difficult situations they’re trapped in.
The show is written by Gerritsen, alongside Christophe Dirickx, Frank Ketelaar and Reijn. The directors are Wouter Bouvijn and Anke Blondé. The producers are Eyeworks, Hollands Licht and Reijn and Van Houten’s production company Manup. Federation Entertainment is selling the series at Mipcom.
What was the starting point for this series?
Halina Reijn: The starting point was seven years ago when Carice and I, after intense careers as actresses, wanted to create our own stories. We founded our company Man Up and decided to create female-driven drama that would bring to light subjects that normally stay hidden. Sex, power, control, addiction and female rage are themes we want to address with our projects.
These are also the themes of our film “Instinct,” a true story about a therapist who falls in love with the serial rapist she is treating in jail.
I always had an obsession with the red light district in Amsterdam, which used to be seen as a symbol of progression, feminism and freedom in the Sixties and Seventies, but which of course is a very complex biotope [habitat] where human trafficking and free-will are hard to distinguish. Is it better to legalize it so you can have more control over what happens to these women or is it better to be strict and prohibit it completely? We thought human trafficking and prostitution would be a suitable arena to discuss female identity, power, sexuality, patriarchy and gender roles in all its complexity.
How important was research in portraying the dynamics and nature of the red light district?
Halina Reijn: Crucial. We used several true stories for our story-lines and wanted to take the super complex arena of prostitution very seriously. We met numerous sex workers, pimps, human traffickers, police detectives, human rights activist, and politicians. Research is a huge part of our process as creators. We always work with Esther Gerritsen as a writer and she too wants to dive deeply into the world of whatever subject we want to take on.
For the opera singer we met with and trained with a real opera star and Maaike met several detectives for her role of Evi, and we researched a lot about the phenomenon of mothers who regretted ever having children, and women who cannot have children.
Also we of course use our own pain, experience and fear.
How does the series explore questions of social and economic difference within Belgian and Dutch society, especially how that affects women?
Halina Reijn: This was one of our goals with this show. To portray women of different layers of society who are struggling with similar subjects (gender roles, sex, motherhood, aging within patriarchy). All three of them need to liberate themselves. Not just from powerful men but most of all from conditioned, patriarchist thinking of what a women should and should not be. And most of all they need to free themselves of their own expectations and fears.
For me, in the end this show is a tribute to true freedom.
What attracted you to the series?
Esther Gerritsen: The possibility to explore so many different female perspectives on motherhood, sex, prostitution, career and love.
What elements of the debate about sex workers fed into the drama?
Esther Gerritsen: The question of prostitution can be something you really choose, or is it the circumstances that force you? And how do we feel about the men who visit prostitutes? Can it really be an innocent transaction between two adults?
Was it a challenge to keep the crime story moving forward while developing the characters?
Esther Gerritsen: It sometimes feels like the obligated homework I also have to do; my main interest is in the characters. But on the other hand, the crime story slaps the characters around, makes them leave their comfort zone. It’s a valuable part of the whole story-machine.
What do the three female protagonists have in common?
Carice van Houten: They are all liberating themselves from their demons and what’s being expected of them.
Sylvia is quite an enigmatic and tough individual. What was the key for getting the audience to empathize with her?
Carice van Houten: We wanted to make sure she was always going to be a layered, complex character. Not the cliche of a victim. We wanted to make her an independent individual within a very codependent relationship.
What issues did you want to explore regarding women’s role as mothers in the series?
Carice van Houten: We wanted to show the different issues women have being a mother or wanting to be mothers or not wanting to be mothers. We also wanted to explore the ambiguity around motherhood. Explore the controversial feelings of regret, secretly yearning to escape motherhood all together.