Metrafilm’s Russian spy series project “Pawns,” pitching at this year’s CoPro Series event at the Berlinale, will be joined by Latvian co-producer Tasse Film.
“Pawns” is the brainchild of writers Michael and Lily Idov, co-writers of 2018 Cannes Palme d’Or competitor “Leto,” and creators of two hugely popular Russian series in “Londongrad” and “The Optimists.” Metrafilms’ Artem Vasilyev is producing.
It’s 1965, the middle of the Cold War, and the KGB has recruited a timid chess pro named Max to aid in trapping a Western spy recruiter working out of Austria. When the sting goes badly, Max proves his genius goes in more than black and white and proves himself an adept stand-in field agent.
Max gets partnered with alpha-male spy-master Ivan, before the Soviet odd couple are joined by a young, leftist West German activist named Hanna. The trio investigate the attack, and learn more than they could have bargained for.
Michael Idov’s debut feature “The Humorist” is currently traveling the international festival circuit. At the Transylvania Festival, where it was nominated for best feature, Variety’s Jay Weissberg was impressed, extolling that “Idov’s exceptionally clever dialogue is matched with a sharp understanding of structure.” Traits that should serve Idov well in his return to long-form storytelling.
Ahead of their CoPro Series pitch, producer Vasilyev and the Idovs talked with Variety about their new co-producer, using history to examine current trends and approaching the Cold War without being overly dramatic or glib.
I see you are looking for co-producers in other countries where you would like to shoot. What kind of partners are you looking for? What would you like potential co-producers to offer to the project?
Vasilyev: In fact, we already have a partner, Latvia’s Tasse Film, the company that co-produced Michael’s “The Humorist” with us in 2018. We are planning to shoot up to 80% of “Pawns” in Riga — it is a great city for both Moscow and Berlin locations — so the Latvian cash rebate will be an important part of the budget. What we are looking for is a minority co-producer who can raise 30-40% of the budget in exchange for the rights to their home territory and a share in rest of world rights. Or, alternatively, a strong sales company that can help us with pre-sales — this is another path we are ready to discuss.
There are some well-known historical tropes you propose to play with: the Soviet chess-master, KGB vs CIA, and misguided senses of nationalism that are still just as prevalent today. Where did the idea for the series start? And how much of it is based in fact vs invention?
Michael and Lily: Artem showed us a pitch he already had for a serious Russian drama with a spy who was also a chess champion. It seemed silly at first, like “here’s a super-sleuth who’s also the world’s best barista,” but then we thought no, this is neat, because in the USSR, top chess players were among the very few who could regularly travel abroad. There was also something inherently madcap about this. Once we realized the main character should be this terminally shy, asocial Bobby Fischer figure who’s forced into this, and his KGB handler an upbeat, blond alpha type, it began to work.
Similarly, historical drama series rely heavily on contemporary parallels to establish their own relevance and to draw in an audience. Is that the case with “Pawns”? And what are some ways this series will connect to audiences in the 2020s?
Michael and Lily: The main theme of “Pawns,” whose three protagonists are all in their 20s, is a new generation desperately scrambling to fix the planet their fathers have almost incinerated. It was true in the 1960s and it still is — for different reasons, but the parallel is pretty clear. It’s up to the young people to save the world. And we propose that working across cultures, and across wildly different ideologies, is the only way to do it.
There’s also a major plot based on how the 1960s’ Western society sneers at women’s chess — which drives Hanna, our female protagonist, politically to the left. Frankly, every argument our characters have about capitalism vs. socialism is an argument happening on Twitter today.
Do you think of this project as something that will fit best on free-to-air, pay TV or a digital platform? Or will the end product be a result of the type of broadcaster you attach to?
Artem: In Russia, we are more concentrated on digital platforms now but are also considering free-to-air networks as possible partners. As for the European partners, I think all three options are on the table for now.
Your best-known work internationally been mostly dramatic, but I see that with “Pawns” you want to play a comedy angle as well. Are the humorous aspects of this series a result of the story you are telling, or are you writing to add comedy to the story?
Michael and Lily: Funny thing is, the very first TV series we ever did as showrunners, 2015’s “Londongrad,” was a comedy — well, in the way “The Good Fight” or “Knives Out” are comedies. The tone is antic and quippy, but the stakes are real. We missed writing in that mode, and “Pawns” really snapped together when we realized that no one’s done the Cold War in this voice yet: it’s all either quite morose or a full-on farce. We had to reach all the way to the 1960s, to Michael Caine’s “Harry Palmer” series, to find anything similar. So, you can look at “Pawns” as an homage to those movies — minus the horrendous sexism.
Pictured, Top: Lily and Michael Idov; Bottom: Artem Vasilyev