PARIS — Since its 2015 debut, Canal Plus’ prestige drama “The Bureau” has become the pay-tv service’s flagship series, winning critical acclaim and a loyal fan base at home, and selling briskly to over 95 territories abroad.
At the head is Eric Rochant, who co-created the workplace espionage thriller with his TOP The Oligarchs Production partner Alex Berger. When putting the series together, Rochant and Berger imported a U.S. production model – placing Rochant at the head of a streamlined infrastructure that could reliably source a ten-episode season per year while keeping a unified voice.
The bet paid off – delivering the cable broadcaster a hot ticket title that the New York Times recently named third best international series of the past decade, while also clearing the way for other showrunners in the French industry.
Though he’ll stay on as executive producer, Rochant will hand over showrunning duties following the series’ fifth season, which will launch in early April on Canal Plus. “The Bureau” co-producer Federation Ent. also handles international distribution.
Variety spoke with Rochant as he put the finishing touches on the upcoming episodes.
How has the French industry changed since “The Bureau” first broadcast in 2015?
When Alex Berger and I started, Netflix hadn’t arrived. We knew they were coming, and that’s what motivated Canal Plus to adopt some of the procedures we proposed, to adopt a style that could generate a full season each year. We understood that in order to remain competitive with the American series that were soon to arrive, we’d have to adapt our methods. Now, as we release Season 5, Netflix, Amazon, Apple and Disney are all here. So the French landscape has changed, and the job itself is transforming as well. The professions of screenwriters, producers, directors are adapting to accommodate this new structure.
Generally speaking, those models are changing, becoming more adapted to each project. The writers that have worked on our series, for example, are becoming showrunners on their own projects. They saw how it worked on “The Bureau” and have been able to export those methods
What are those methods, what are the keys to successful showrunning?
Above all, the many stages of production need to overlap. That’s important. You need to be able to shoot, write and edit concurrently. In order to do that all at the same time, you have to be organized and you have to delegate. The writers learn how to delegate tasks while maintaining a unified style and perspective. That’s the importance of having a showrunner – so that the writers continue to supervise the project every step of the way in order to guarantee their vision. A writer has to learn, in a certain sense, how to direct and how to produce. They have to explain their vision, choose actors, work with cinematographers. In short, everything that happens once the writing stops.
Beyond offering on-set experience, how does one train future showrunners? Is this something that could be offered in film schools?
The U.S. might not have a school for showrunning, but it doesn’t need one. There, writers are used to having a larger vision than what’s one the page. I mean, the term showrunner comes from the U.S.
In France, there’s no formal training yet, but there could be. Training showrunners means training screenwriters – the ones who want to, of course — to go further into the production process, because the writing stage never actually stops. You’re writing in production, you’re writing in the editing room, you’re always writing. Being a showrunner, in contrast to being a screenwriter, means continuing to write after completing the screenplay.
“The Bureau” packs an impressive number of directors among its cast and crew, with series writers Thomas Bidegain and Cécile Ducrocq, and actors Mathieu Kassovitz, Mathieu Amalric and Louis Garrel, all having directed films themselves. Was that a conscious effort on your part?
For the actors, it’s mostly by chance. Today, a lot of actors direct – that’s a real trend these days, so when we cast someone, there’s a good chance they might have directed as well. On the other hand, I think it’s very valuable that many of the show’s writers have made their own films, because that gives them a better chance to become a showrunner. A showrunner is like an author-producer, so knowing how to direct really helps. You have to know how to choose actors, to scout locations, to give your series a style. That we count writers like Thomas Bidegain and Cécile Ducrocq really helps, as they’re able to supervise different steps production.
Going into your outing as showrunner, did you approach this season in a different light?
Yes, but not because this was my last season — rather, because it was our fifth. After five seasons of a series that works, you can allow yourself a bit more freedom. In order to feed our own creativity and desire to make this series, we had to look further, to explore new ground. A fifth season allows you to shake things up and break the rules that we ourselves had put in place. The viewers are there, and they’re ready follow. At this point, the series is well established, so we could shift the focus or introduce characters at different intervals without the fear of confusing our viewers.
You also show up onscreen in a few episodes, so that’s new.
I appear in two episodes, yes. I was intrigued, and I thought it would be fun, but for the most part I did it for practical reasons. Those were scenes I wrote at the last minute, and I didn’t have time to cast the part. We were shooting in Cambodia, and I thought it would be complicated to find the right actor who would understand the role. I was already there to direct a few sequences, so… Plus, I thought it would be fun. Like I said, in the fifth season, you can indulge yourself. I might not have done so in Seasons 1 or 2.
This season explores questions of Russian hacking and introduces a new side plot involving Saudi Arabia. It even references the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, which happened while you were in pre-production. Do events like that force a shift in your focus?
When we start writing a season, our first question is what to do with our characters. Where can we take them, what can we explore? That process builds on what we’ve already done. In terms of cyber-warfare, we hoped to further develop that theme, exploring it more fully. Because we’d already done a lot about Syria and Iraq, we wanted to focus on other areas of import – like Saudi Arabia, for instance, or Egypt. We do try to take in the news like sponges, looking to see what could feed our narratives. In the case Saudi Arabia and Jamal Khashoggi, that did feed our process. Only before Khashoggi, there was the Hariri case, so we were already keyed in to Saudi Arabian power dynamics, and had already set our sights on that subject.
A season of television still requires a long lead-time, demanding planning and forethought. Only now with the global pandemic, everything seems up in the air, changing from one minute to the next. How can a series remain current while reflecting a world that feels dangerously in flux?
The world is both changing and remaining very much the same. There are still many invariables. Russia will stay itself with Putin in charge. He’ll renew his mandate every four years, that’s an invariable, and short of a third Russian revolution, it won’t change. Terrorism is also invariable, and will surely come back strong once the virus fades. China is also unchanging – for good or ill the virus has only strengthen China’s importance.
There are variables, too. Trump’s decisions with regards to Iran have provoked change. If we wanted to write about Iran trying to get around the nuclear deal, the plot would have been rendered obsolete once Trump junked the accord. So the world is build around polarity and complexity on ground that’s always shifting, and series like ours have to take that into account. Now, what will happen to the world post-coronavirus? Things will certainly change, so the new team will have to manage these invariables alongside the new developments.
What advice can you offer to other producers looking to replicate your show’s international success?
I couldn’t say anything for certain. From what I hear, anyway, I think international audiences respond to a credible realism within a genre — in this case, espionage — that often veers towards more fantastical depictions. It breaks with convention, and when I read positive notices, that’s what I find people respond to: They are fascinated by the realism and the process. We have taken a mysterious and intriguing world and opened it up in a realistic way. I think that’s what makes the series a success. Now, is that replicable? I don’t know. You’d need another mysterious and intriguing milieu, and you’d need to explore in a similar way.
What recent series have inspired you?
My favorite series of the year is “Succession.” It’s extremely well written, intelligent, elegant and has superb dialogue. Both the characters and actors are very strong. Have I learned anything from it? It’s quite different from what I do now, but in any case, you never know what can inspire. You can watch something and then apply lessons from it twenty-years later. I’m still applying the lessons I learned from Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon A Time in America.” I learned so much from watching and re-watching that film. This season, I applied many of the lessons I learned from Michael Mann. I looked to “Miami Vice” for inspiration when thinking about this or that scene. So you always learn from what you admire, even if you don’t always put those lessons to use right away.
“Succession” creator Jesse Armstrong made his name in the U.K. industry before crossing the pond to work with an American broadcaster. You’ve recently signed with a U.S. agency… so is that a move that interests you?
Yes, of course. I do have those ambitions. That’s part of my future.