Historians might point to 2015 as the year international drama finally broke through.
American networks have gone mad for European-made series — from Britain’s Downton Abbey, Denmark’s The Killing, French zombie drama The Returned — and European creative talent, the first generation of European showrunners, are finally getting their due.
At the Berlin International Film Festival, which had its first-ever TV screenings this year, The Hollywood Reporter sat down with the talents behind seven of Europe’s hottest new series: Anna Winger, co-creator of German cold-war spy drama Deutschland 83, acquired by Sundance TV for the U.S.; Jeppe Gjervig Gram, the showrunner of Danish financial thriller Follow the Money; Ed McCardie, the writer behind CanalPlus‘ dark dramedy Spotless, acquired by Esquire Network; Maria Feldman and Amit Cohen, co-creators of Israeli spy thriller False Flag, which Fox International Channels has picked up worldwide in its first-ever such deal for a foreign-language show; and Lorenzo Mieli and Ludovica Rampoldi, producer and writer, respectively, of Italian political drama 1992, a Netflix show stateside.
In a frank and funny discussion at the Glashutte Original Lounge in Berlin with European News Editor Scott Roxborough, the writers talked inspiration, the rise of dark drama and their worst-ever network notes. (“They said instead of terrorists, can’t you make them vampires?”)
What was the TV show that made you want to work in this industry?
Jeppe Gjervig Gram: When I started, I was working as a buyer for (Danish commercial channel) TV2, I bought English and American shows. What really caught me was Homicide, Life on the Street. I thought it was so fantastic that you could do a crime show that felt like true art about modern life in a big city. Then I saw a behind-the-scenes show about the making of Friends. And I saw the writers room and how U.S. writers work on TV. When I saw the writers room, I said: that’s where I want to work. Because it was the 15 funniest people in Hollywood coming up with stories and coming up with jokes, so I wanted to be in a writers room. The only writers room in Denmark at the time was at (public channel) DR. So I knew I had to go there.
Ludovica Rampoldi: I remember the shock of watching Twin Peaks. I was 10 or 12, it was 1990 in Italy and I thought “wow.” It was so strange, so mysterious. It really honed me — it was source of my inspiration, what I wanted to do. To use a German word, everything was so heimlich (mysterious). The pure girl who is also maybe a dark lady. The detective who might also be a monster. Everything was so layered. That was a shock.
Amit Cohen: Everyone now talks about cable shows, but Twin Peaks was the first network series to break the formula. It was about characters and it wasn’t just about the payoff. It was the story of the week, the case of the week. It was very brave to do it.
Maria Feldman: I grew up in the former Soviet Union, so I grew up on television different than anyone else here. We had only one channel and sometimes we’d have a chess match live on primetime. The only TV series they had, they we be made from novels. Like The Three Musketeers. That’s how I think of TV series even now, like novels. TV series are much closer to novels than movies are, for me.
Anna Winger: I’m a novelist, Deutschland ’83 is the first television I ever wrote. I told Jeppe this already but the TV show that made me want to write a TV show was Borgen. I’m American but I lived in Germany for 12 years and American shows — I love The Wire and Homicide — I was a fanatic watcher of these shows but they involve so many people and are so long — 25 episodes or whatever — it’s such a bigger project. When I saw Borgen, I thought: This is really like a novel. It’s like writing a novel. It’s creating a world, and it’s so intense, so important, the characters are so strong. And it’s eight episodes, you can get your hands around it, in a way. I read about it and found they had writers rooms in Denmark, which they don’t in Germany. So I thought, if there, why not here? And it was a real experiment.
Amit Cohen: I liked Wiseguy. Remember it? It was before The Sopranos. It was network television but it was an undercover police going into a mafia family. It was interesting to me because the thing I like about shows is I want to be part of the group, I want to be part of their world. These are the shows I want to watch. I want to move to Twin Peaks. I want to live with the Gallaghers in Shameless. I want to be stranded on the island in Lost. When I wrote False Flag, it was about this group of people, who wake up one day and see their faces and names all over the news, accused of being terrorists. It was based on a real story that happened in Israel but what interested me was the group, belonging to this group. When you write characters and you fall in love with them, you want to be with them. These are the shows I like to watch and these are the shows I want to make.
Jeppe, what’s the secret behind Denmark’s amazing success with TV series?It’s one of Europe’s smallest countries and has turned out some of its biggest hits.
Gram: Well, at DR from the very outset one of the guiding ideas was you could not pitch a story that was just a formula. Just a cop story or whatever. You had to have a double story. If you wanted to pitch a cop show it had to also be a portrait of society, or whatever. The classic good engaging story is one part, but you wanted always to have something that had deep social, ethical connotations on the other level. If you wanted to do a cop show, you really had to be original or they didn’t want a cop show.
When Adam (Price) pitched Borgen, I think one of the big attractions was that a political show had never been done in Denmark before. That was the same with our show, Follow the Money, because its a subject — the economy, that has never really been done in series form before; that was, for DR, one of the main selling points.
Winger: I am Danish at heart, I knew it. Here (in Germany) it is always: Why can’t we fit this into a genre? They like the other elements, the deeper social connotations, but it makes them nervous. They want to put it in a box.
McCardie: Well if they don’t change quickly, they’ll get left behind. The TV world has moved on in terms of what stories it can tell and if they are still trying to make formulaic stuff, they’re lost.
Feldman: I think what changed in Israel is they started selling shows internationally for remake. They realized if they made another cop show, no one would buy it, but if they made Prisoners of War, which became Homeland, people would buy it.
Denmark has a writers room system, like the U.S. What’s it like in other countries ?
McCardie: Everyone loves the idea of the American writers room and it’s the direction TV is going in, but it’s not universal yet.
Winger: Definitely not here (in Germany). We didn’t really do a writers room. We hired other writers to do first drafts of some of the scripts. But the way it works in America, people are hired full-time to be in the writer’s room. Is that how it works in DR?
Gram: Yes. People are hired for the duration of the script. I want my writers to be as full-time as possible. But if I want the best writers, I know they will be engaged with other projects. I get them to write up until the second draft of each episode and I write up until the shooting draft.
Rampoldi: I had a chance to meet Lisa Albert, a writer and producer on Mad Men, and I asked her about their writer’s room and she said sometimes they have Robert Towne, screenwriter of Chinatown, or Frank Pierson, writer of Dog Day Afternoon. I was thinking of our “writer’s room” for 1992. And it’s me and my co-writers, Alessandro Fabbri, Stefano Sardo and a young script assistant — and that’s it.
Feldman: Amit and I wrote everything alone. We’d meet up every week for four years and break the story.
McCardie: In the U.K. until quite recently, all writers worked in isolation. You’d never meet other writers. Sometimes you didn’t know (in a series) which story was coming after yours, which story was coming before yours.
Winger: That’s how all German TV works! Everything is separated out. You get assigned an episode and you have no idea how it fits in.
Gram: So there is no chance of any kind character development.
Winger: If it exists, the producers do it. The producers control it. The writers never meet another, they have no idea who each other are. That’s how every show is done in Germany. Except our show. We were the big exception.
Gram: I really really love our writers room. I basically live there, 11 to 12 hours a day. When we are storylining, we’re there for two weeks, morning to night.
McCardie: You have two weeks of storylining for each episode?
Winger: Two weeks! Oh my God! That’s like a dream.
Gram: After that we go to treatment. We have three weeks for the first draft, two weeks for the second draft …
Feldman: I have to move to Denmark.
Gram: I know, you are all going to come to Copenhagen and take my job. But I really believe we couldn’t have made Borgen without this time. It costs money but it’s the cheapest part of the process.
McCardie: But that’s why the quality is good. You can rush it, but eventually it affects the quality.
Gram: Not doing it is like building a beautiful house on mud, it’s going to crack.
McCardie: In the U.K., things are slowly changing. Now we have a hybrid system. But the job titles and contracts and such are not structured for an American writers room. In the U.K., if I’m writing episode three and episode seven, for example, then those are mine. I don’t give them to you to write comedy and to you to do the female voices; it doesn’t work like that like an American writers room where we all share.
Feldman: And you have no idea what happens in between episode 3 and 7?
McCardie: Well now it is changing because that’s obviously dumb. It’s a dumb way to work. But it was all about control. They were slightly suspicious of writers. You people with your ideas. Suspicious characters. It’s so exciting now because, while your show has to be good, any great idea has a chance. Breaking Bad changed everything. A lot of people love Breaking Bad for a lot of reasons, but what it showed is that any good story has a chance. It doesn’t have to be a cop show, a hospital show. It doesn’t have to be a formula or a procedure. This is a show about a loser, a chemistry teacher, who has cancer. And it’s the dad from Malcolm in the Middle. And what can sell this show? And it bangs down the door so any story can be told. Any good story. If you have a great story, you have got a chance.
What’s been your worst pitch session with a broadcaster?
Rampoldi: In Italy we don’t have a pitch system. Lorenzo came to us with the idea of doing a political drama on this period in Italy in the 1990s. We decided to focus on a specific year and after we wrote the bible with the storylines, we gave it to the producer and to our agent and he said, “This is great, you have to turn it into a novel or a movie.” It’s a TV show but nobody in Italy is going to produce it and finance it for television. Forget it.
Mieli: What happened in Italy is pay-TV, Sky Italia changed the game. We would never have had the chance to produce this series for commercial television, not at all. It was impossible. Then pay-TV arrived and started producing scripted series five years ago. They’ve done like four shows, but these four shows changed the game totally.
McCardie: One of my first big projects was a drama set around a bombing by the IRA: a terrorist bombing in Birmingham. As we were writing the scripts, peace was happening in Northern Ireland and everyone got nervous. I went into the meeting and the broadcaster said: “Ok, Ok, Ok. How about this: instead of terrorists, can you make them … vampires?”
How about broadcaster notes, any horror stories?
Cohen: I wrote the eighth episode of False Flag on a flight from Israel to L.A. When I landed in L.A. the script was finished and I thought: “Wow, I’m so focused!” I sent the pages to Keshet and I got notes from the head of drama, and the first was: “I want to slap you! This is so bad!” I’ve stopped writing on flights.
McCardie: My favorite note was: “Sprinkle on a bit more magic.” That was it!
What’s the best advice you’ve been giving about writing for television?
McCardie: I worked with (Shameless creator) Paul Abbott and while he didn’t give advice, he was a great example of how to do things. Paul recognizes the conservative nature of the industry, that the industry is always looking to repeat successes – so it’s what is this year’s Breaking Bad? What is this year’s The Wire. Abbot works against that. He’s anarchic. He intentionally fucks people up. But on a practical level, the best advice I ever got was from an actor. He said: “Leave something for other people to do.” Don’t overwrite. Make a blueprint and leave it for the directors, actors, camera people to fill in.
Rampoldi: Stop fucking around and just write. It was from an actor, a man who is now my husband. He said: “You have talent, now sit down and write.” It was very important. Because this is a hard job. You have to be very focused. Have to sit down at the computer and not go on Facebook all the time.
Cohen: Can you manage it, not going on Facebook when you write? I have to cut off the Internet entirely when I write.
Feldman: It’s true, he does it. And then I can’t reach him!
McCardie: Four years ago, I went back to writing by hand. I don’t do social networking, I’m officially too old, but the Internet — it’s football, news, gossip. In my spare office at home, I have one desk for my computer and I have one that is just a desk with paper and a pencil. When I’ve finished my first draft, I go to my computer for my second draft.
Winger: I have my office in the Tempelhof airport. It’s the fourth biggest building in the world. I’m in tower six. It was the beehive. They closed the airport, and now it is a big park. My room is number 3165/55 I’m not kidding. Its so kafkaesque it’s insane — with this crazy view of the airfield. And I can’t get internet access. It started because they just couldn’t find the phone line in my office. So I never got an internet connection, and actually it is a benefit.
Amit, your last series, The Gordin Cell, has been adapted by NBC as Allegiance. What were the biggest changes they made in the adaptation?
Cohen: Our story is about a family of immigrants that come from Russia. Their son is an officer for the Israeli military and he has no idea that his parents worked for the KGB. The series starts when the parents’ handler knocks on their door and says: “You have to come work for us again and we want your son.” In the Israeli version it takes six episodes for the son to find out his parents’ secret. In the American version it happens at the end of the pilot.
We also sold the series to Korea to adapt. In the same scene, when the handler knocks on the door, the Israeli version is version is very minimal, very reserved. In the Korean version, the handler walks in, says: “I want your son.” The mother says: “No!” And suddenly it becomes a crazy knife fight.
McCardie: Don’t sell it to the U.K. They’ll turn them into vampires.
What’s been the most personal thing you’ve worked into a script?
Winger: My story is very much about hiding in plain sight. It’s about someone who crosses the border (from East to West Germany) and looks like everyone else but thinks differently, feels differently inside but it is not visible. And I draw on. … I live in Germany and I look like a German, but I’m not. Technically something is about one thing and character is about something else.
The whole thing is based very specifically that happened to my husband actually. During the Cold War my husband did his army service in West Germany and he was listening to Russian radio, and then at Christmas they wished him a Merry Christmas by name: “Merry Christmas Jorg!” — while he was listening to the radio. So he knew there was a mole on his base, someone he was working with was a mole but he didn’t know who it was. And they never found out. So our story is told from the point of view of the mole.
McCardie: That’s what changed in the last 5 years, is the rise of the antihero. To be able to tell that story form the point of view of the bad guy.
Winger: Yeah, all our heroes are members of the Stasi.
Gram: For me it was very much the storyline of Laura, the daughter in Borgen. As a very young person, as a teenager, she is suffering from depression and anxiety attacks. And for me that is close to myself, I have known many young girls who have suffered from anxiety and depression. We always knew that we wanted to give Laura some kind of problem to bring stress into the professional life. I was pitching for the troubled life of a teen because I see that a lot in Denmark and I wanted to explore that.
McCardie: At the center of my stories are always the little guy against the big guy. Outsiders. I think that isn’t a conscious thing but the POV that seems to come from inside me is the outsider, the small man.
On what show, currently on air or not, would you want to be in the writers’ room?
Rampoldi: Mad Men.
Winger: I LOVE Transparent! It’s the most Jewish show. Isn’t it crazy! I can’t believe that is happening on TV. I watched that show in one night. Another episode and another. I couldn’t believe someone was writing something that was that organically Jewish. It’s about transgender but it’s really about family. But I would like to write on his shows (points to Gram). When I was watching Borgen, I so over-identified with Birgitta. I thought I was the Prime Minister of Denmark in a former life.
McCardie: Anything David Simon is working on. There are a lot of great shows out there — like House of Cards or the Danish shows — but I wouldn’t say I would want to work on them. But David Simon. Anything he’s doing, I’m there.
Mieli: I’m a producer. The last show I saw that I would have loved to produce is Fargo. I didn’t expect it to be so good.
Gram: Actually I am inspired by comedies. I don’t have a funny bone myself, I would never pitch or try and write for a sitcom but I’m in love with Modern Family. It is so funny, it never chases the jokes. I believe the characters. Every second episode I have a lump in my throat. I think it is amazingly written. And South Park. I enjoy the structure of South Park — they don’t follow any rules. That helps me rethink structure. Maybe you don’t need a first act. They write very freely.
Rampoldi: I love the structure of The Simpsons, in which the first act is something that goes completely in one direction and the other goes completely in the other direction. That taught me something I didn’t know about structure.
Cohen: For me, Mad Men. What I think is interesting is now in American television they seem to be looking for familiar brands. Like The Walking Dead, or True Blood, is based on a book, or comic, or adaptation of an existing series. And in Mad Men, there were able to create this entire amazing world by themselves and it is truly inspiring. And it is a place I want to go, I want to live in.
So if you were the head writer on Mad Men — how would you have ended the series, what would you have done to Don Draper?
Cohen: I’d have turned him into a vampire and spin it off into a new series. Just squeeze that brand.