Gritty crime drama “Awake” is the first Serbian series to be in the official selection at Canneseries. It follows Sonja Kljun, a cold-yet-caring detective relegated from her case in Belgrade to the small city of Subotica where she must work with her new partner to solve a seemingly open-and-shut suicide. As she uncovers secrets about the suicide, her daughter’s prophetic dreams serve to reveal much more than she ever intended.
“Awake” is directed by Uroš Tomić and Jelena Gavrilović, and the screenplay is written by Ljubica Lukovic and Matija Dragojević. The series is premiering internationally at Canneseries, with its first season comprised of ten 50-minute episodes. United Media produced the series, and will screen the first two episodes at the festival.
Variety spoke with both directors and screenwriters ahead of the film screening at Canneseries.
How was the storytelling in “Awake” improved by the longer form of TV drama, in contrast to film?
Matija Dragojević: With “Awake”, there was never any doubt. This story could only be told through a serialized narrative; it was far too complex and multi-layered for a more limited format. With two, three hours we could only scratch the surface and a serialized approach allowed us to go much deeper and balance two investigations in parallel: The crime/conspiracy that keeps the audience engaged, and the deeper investigation into our protagonist’s own disturbing truth. In a way, the show is like psychotherapy that goes well with popcorn. And I’m sure we’d all love to overcome our issues in just one or two sessions, but it takes much longer – hopefully at least one more season in the case of “Awake.”
When writing, how do you balance the surreal nature of Sonja’s prophetic dreams with the cold reality of a dark police drama?
Ljubica Lukovic: It’s an interesting question, since I would say it’s rather the opposite – the reality is quite surreal, and the dreams are cold and dark. The series takes place in a hauntingly beautiful small town, in the middle of summer, and it boasts a rich and vibrant local milieu, as well as some subtle moments of humor. When you have such a lively setting for a murder mystery, it takes on a slightly surreal flavor, and allows us to play with other genre elements. There is a whole subplot related to those prophetic dreams, and how they were exploited during the war. We made that up, but we were inspired by the real efforts of Yugoslavian military, back in the seventies, to develop a special class of soldiers with telekinetic powers. Which just underlines my point that reality is quite surreal sometimes.
In one scene, Sonia asks a suspect to write down an address so that she can lift his prints from the pen, and I found it refreshing that you kept the camera wide, such that only a focused eye might catch the way she lifts the paper to protect the print. How do you use this subtlety in direction without it becoming too subtle?
Jelena Gavrilović: What we really believe in is that directing is an exchange and communication with the audience, and you need to ask yourself how you want them to feel. In the case of that scene, and the series in general, we wanted them to feel a little bit challenged and active, not only about the mystery case, but also about the personal truths Sonja is searching for. If we get the audience active about them both, they will end the season feeling richer inside.
Ivana Vukovic and Stefan Vukić have a real oppositional chemistry, which is apparent from the first scene with them together. How do you approach direction when you have a lucky magnetism between two actors such as this?
Uroš Tomić: We always loved how Peter Weir defined casting: You are a detective in the missing persons unit and you have to make the distinction between the real character and the one pretending to be the character you are searching for. These two were definitely not pretending. They clicked right away and became close friends, they supported one another, even their horoscopes are a perfect match. However, there is always the danger in assuming that off-screen chemistry will for sure translate into on-screen chemistry. Sometimes you think you are photographing it, but you are actually not, it’s not visible. So you have to be careful and test it. We were fortunate that it did, it worked. That’s when you can simply sit back and enjoy, trying not to be too euphoric and enthusiastic about it, but to achieve balance. Especially as their relationship is also based on humor and comic details, so with that you should never push too hard and exaggerate. Anyway most of the communication between actor and director should be non-verbal.