European Broadcasters Take on U.S. Streamers With 'Mirage' Spy Drama

Courtesy of Connect3/Lincoln TV

The gold rush begun by Netflix has a Canadian co-production pioneer helping French and German old media giants fight back with a sexy spy thriller starring Clive Standen and Marie-Josee Croze.

With English-language TV series that travel globally on Netflix and Amazon these days coming from anywhere, European old media rivals are suddenly teaming with Canadian co-producers for their own global dramas to get round the American giants.

Take Mirage, a six-part, $3 million-per-episode spy thriller series that stars Jack Ryan actress Marie-Josee Croze and Clive Standen (Vikings), and is produced by France’s Lincoln TV and Connect3 Media, a division of Montreal-based Cineflix Media, for France 2, Germany's ZDF and Canada's Bell Media and Superchannel.

As Standen, who plays Gabriel, a security expert with an explosive secret, tells The Hollywood Reporter, Mirage is a traditional spy thriller in the style of The Night Manager or Bodyguard, but with a modern twist — a passionate love story in a family setting.

The series portrays Claire (Croze) as an expatriate starting a new life in Abu Dhabi with her son and husband Lukas (Hannes Jaenicke). But Claire is soon thrust as a novice into the world of espionage after she discovers her first husband Gabriel (Standen), who supposedly died 15 years earlier in the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, is alive.

"This series is more of a love story than an action show. Claire isn't a spy. She has no idea what her first husband did, and Gabriel is having to come clean about a major lie he hid. So he's in love and feeling guilty and that's emotionally refreshing when you're just breaking down doors," Standen explains.

But will Mirage — with its high-octane crime, sex and exotic locations — appeal to global audiences across different languages and cultures? The alliance of broadcast rivals behind the Canada-France co-production is betting as much with their first big ticket action drama to take on Netflix and other U.S. streamers chasing video eyeballs globally, and another SVOD onslaught to come from Disney+ and Apple TV.

"Traditional broadcasters need to change their habits, their commissioning and the type of content they're doing with something that feels big and broad and exciting like Mirage. It's a series for the Netflix world," Julien Leroux, senior vp of global scripted co-productions for Cineflix Media, based in London, explains.

The goal is collaboration on internationally relevant originals among traditionally rival European broadcasters. Mirage also underlines how the battle for the best star-driven, commercial dramas now starts early and beyond Los Angeles and London, as Netflix hands TV creators jaw-dropping paydays for originals.

For Cineflix, the bonus is getting global distribution rights at a discount as it takes the traditional model of U.S.-Canada-U.K. TV partnerships to Paris, Berlin and Rome for Canadian-European co-productions. Lincoln TV co-owner and producer Marc Missonnier says Mirage is the first series from a scripted TV co-production pact called the Alliance between Italy’s Rai, France Televisions and Germany’s ZDF to co-finance and commission global dramas.

"We don't have Italy as part of our series, but we have France and Germany and they thought the project was good for them before any global strategy and thinking followed," he said as the U.S., UK and Australian territories remain open for a sale. The bet is Mirage can be financed and shot before the Americans and Brits screen finished episodes and possibly acquire the first season and collaborate on a second season set outside the Middle East.

"It's a challenge, of course, to produce without an Anglo-Saxon broadcaster. But if we succeed, and I'm confident we will with what we've shot, we will have something that appeals to broadcasters and streaming platforms seeking English language dramas," Missonnier argues.

And for the Canadian co-producer Connect3, Mirage deploys top talent from the French, German and Quebec industries, while tapping European and Canadian subsidies and tax credits for economies of scale and a global reach. "We're bringing international audiences engaging content like Mirage by connecting talented creative partners with the right platforms and broadcasters, which has been part of the company's ethos from day one," says Pablo Salzman, Connect3 president.

Another Canadian-European global drama is the Taylor Kitsch starrer Shadowplay, a Berlin-set thriller from StudioCanal's Tandem Productions, Canada's Bron Studios and Germany's ZDF.

But Mirage, shot in Abu Dhabi and Morocco as it portrays Standen's character targeted by mysterious secret agents, is a far cry from the streets of London with Jed Mercurio's Bodyguard or Carlton Cuse's Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan, set in Washington. D.C.

Yet they all come from the same TV spy thriller world, as Franck Philippon and co-writers Olivier Pouponneau and Benedicte Charles played with the Emirates as an iconic destination for oil wealth and power that few TV viewers will have visited or recognize in real life.

"You can offer images that no one really knows, so there's something original about the locations and the landscape and the way the city works," Philippon says of Abu Dhabi's luxury enclaves and soaring office towers offering an exotic setting as local expats behave badly.

Mirage betrays a dark, more sinister side of the Emirates, as Claire and Gabriel battle evil Russian villains trying to control the global oil industry. Standen recalls Abu Dhabi seemingly having eyes everywhere, real and imagined, as he played a spy in an iconic city with traditional Islamic values and video cameras everywhere.

"We felt at times there were spies in our hotel and you're not allowed any Skype calls. Everything is monitored, so it's not as easy as being a spy in Eastern Europe," he says. Mirage director Louis Choquette, whose career has bridged popular French language TV series like The Parents, Rumours and Mafiosa and English language dramas like Versailles and 19-2, adds that his direct visual and acting style brought to the Canada-Europe co-production put naturalism before the contrivance and illusion typical of Hollywood dramas.

"The feeling I'm looking for is authentic. If I feel they (actors) are playing something, rather than living something, I've lost. I'm looking for actors who can be involved, and not playing to the script," Choquette explained.

Working alongside Choquette on Mirage is frequent collaborator and director of photography Ronald Plante, who also lit HBO's Sharp Objects for director Jean Marc Vallee. Plante explains how the spy thriller was shot entirely with natural lighting and hand-held cameras for a certain verité flavor, as each shot became a playground.

"It's like jazz. We deal with it when we're there. I like the surprises. I don't go for the middle, the very beautiful and I don't go for okay. I go for amazing," he said of his search for spontaneous performances and visuals.

Mirage is set for delivery in late 2019, with Cineflix Rights shopping the drama outside Canada, France and Germany.