Not so long ago, when people spoke about the current golden age of TV drama, they meant the current golden age of American TV drama. Shows such as The Sopranos and Mad Men – sleek, intelligent, engrossing, effortlessly superior – were what they had in mind. But then Europe got in on the golden age. The Killing and The Bridge from Scandinavia, and Spiral and Braquo from France more than measured up to their US peers.
Now drama departments from both continents are coming together to create TV series that have an entirely international shape and character. The BBC, for instance, recently imported one of the directors of The Killing to work on Murder: Joint Enterprise, a critically acclaimed one-off that was as bleak as its title. Lillyhammer, a co-production between the US and Norway, was a cult hit all over the world. Co-productions, of course, have a long history but these projects are getting bigger in scale, and Jo, made by production company Atlantique (part of France’s Lagardère Entertainment group) and starting early next year, is one of the most ambitious to date.
“It gave me the goose bumps,” says Charlotte Sieling, conceptual director of The Bridge, as she recalls being asked to work on Jo. “An amazing French superstar, powerful English actors, shot in the city of cities, on an American script.” Jo is a crime thriller starring Jean Reno (the titular hitman in Luc Besson’s 1994 film Léon) and each episode revolves around a different Parisian location. The show’s creator is René Balcer, a former show runner (the American term for overall series director) on the US’s longest running police drama, Law & Order. Each episode is directed by a different international director – Kristoffer Nyholm (The Killing/Denmark), Stefan Schwartz (Dexter/US), Sheree Folksonn (Hit and Miss/UK), with Sieling directing the pilot and first episode.
The worldwide dominance of US TV drama over the past 20 years has resulted in international audiences becoming familiar with and now even expecting the long-arc, box-set-friendly US format. Homeland was just as anticipated in Italy, Germany and Sweden as it was in the US. There is a growing taste for foreign drama in America too. Homeland was a remake of Israeli drama Hatufim; The Killing (as it is known in the UK – Forbrydelsen, or “The Crime”, is the Danish title) was remade with a Seattle setting. Other foreign-inspired shows are in the pipeline. “It’s a natural evolution,” says Balcer. “The proliferation of cable channels in the US has meant that there are so many hours to fill that; creative as US writers are, they can’t fill them all.”
As well as this convergence of taste among international audiences, a globalised world means that the subject matter explored in overseas TV drama is increasingly relevant to one’s own. “We all go to Starbucks, we’re all scared of terrorism,” says Klaus Zimmerman, executive producer at Atlantique.
The rights to broadcast Jo have been sold to more than 125 countries, and Germany, France and Italy all invested in its production. Indeed, the need for multiple sources of investment is one of the factors behind the internationalising of TV production. Making TV drama is so expensive that even the most lavish series produced in Europe cannot expect to match the budgets of their US rivals. So drama departments from different countries are pooling their budgets in order to create shows that are bigger than the sum of their parts – shows that can compete with the US on its own turf.
Multiple investors bring other benefits. A sole investor has the power to pull the plug on the entire production if it does not like what is being made. When there are multiple investors, as was the case with The Bridge, decisions about content involve negotiation. “The Swedish station didn’t want it to be too Danish,” says Nikolaj Scherfig, the Danish writer on the series, “so late in the writing process, a lot of the characters were changed from Danes to Swedes. It wasn’t a problem for us because it didn’t affect anything dramatically. Germany requested that the ending be changed because they have more conservative viewers. We didn’t change that.”
The power to dictate the vision of a show shifts to the point of liaison between different investors – the producer, who is likely to be more sympathetic to the creator’s original concept. The producer has often worked with the writers in getting the idea off the ground; he or she may even have worked with them for years on various projects. This is attractive to European talent, who find the requirements of national broadcasters too constraining; and likewise to Americans, who, unless their shows are picked up by cable channels catering to niche audiences, such as HBO or AMC, find themselves under similar pressures.
With any international collaboration there is scope for cultural conflict. Balcer describes the US production teams as “very militaristic, like moving an army”.
Meanwhile, “the French,” according to Sieling, “are very professional but have red wine on the table at lunchtime. We just said, ‘Let’s go with it’ and check into rehab when we get back to Denmark.” Negotiations between artists must be handled with delicacy too, and have been known to go sour. “European directors aren’t used to the show runner having final cut,” says Balcer. “By the same token, US show runners need to respect the director’s input more than they might back home.”
Despite such tricky diplomacy, writers and directors from different countries have often admired each others’ work from afar and are keen to collaborate. “We have a lot to learn, especially in the one-hour dramas that America does so well,” admits Marianne Gray, producer of the original Swedish Wallander series. Gray recently invited Norman Morrill, a US producer (HBO’s How to Make it in America, USA Network’s Covert Affairs), to Norway to give a boot camp in the US style of writing to the team working on her latest project, Occupied, a TV drama created by Jo Nesbo. The storytelling style contrasted with what Morrill is used to. “In the US we always stay close to the bone of plot, that’s the engine of moving the story forward,” he says. “In Scandinavia character plays a stronger role, you have the luxury of allowing feelings and emotions to percolate a little.”
US talent is keen to experience the European sensibility. Balcer says he “grew up on European cinema” and pioneering US show runner Tom Fontana (Oz/Homicide: Life on the Street) has also chosen to work with Atlantique on Borgia, a production that exploits Europe’s cultural resources to the full. The story of the Renaissance papal family is shot mostly on location in Prague, whose beautiful monuments stand in for ancient Rome. The Czech Republic’s film-making heritage means that the production team boasts excellent technicians as well as an Italian costume designer, make-up artist and set designer. Fontana is also working on a retelling of Shakespeare’s plays for TV in partnership with Johnny Depp’s production company and Swedish producer Yellowbird.
With so many international elements, it is hoped that these productions will reach niche audiences all over the world – audiences that together will be large enough to make each one a big success. “Stories will get told,” says Zimmerman, “that wouldn’t have been told before.”
‘Jo’ is scheduled to air on Fox early next year