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With Sky Atlantic’s South of France drama, Riviera, producer Paul McGuinness and Oscar-winning screenwriter Neil Jordan set out to bring Somerset Maugham’s famous line about the Cote d’Azur —“a sunny place for shady people” — to the small screen.
According to McGuinness, the idea started with wanting to create a show “about rich people doing terrible things, with yachts, Lamborginis, beautiful clothes, beautiful women, money, art and glamour, reflecting that old line ‘Behind every great fortune is a great crime.’ ”
What they came up with is a family crime drama starring Julia Stiles and Lena Olin set among the rich and private lives that pepper the South of France.
The show marks Stiles’ latest foray into television, a “leap of faith” she took after having an instinctive “gut reaction” to the first script.
But that version of the character — a young second wife who finds out her late husband was involved in some underhanded dealings — was quite naive.
“They mentioned that in the end they wanted her to become a bit like Michael Corleone — a good person who is compromised by the world that they’re in and does some questionable things,” Stiles said. “And I insisted, the closer we got to the finale, that she becomes darker and more proactive.”
To hear her describe it, the show will pull no punches in the depths to which she will go to protect herself, facing off against not only criminals but Olin’s first-wife character.
“She’s been backed into a corner and the only thing that she can do to defend herself is sink to the level of these other people,” said Stiles. Having not seen the entire show — or even the full first episode ahead of its MIPTV world premiere — Stiles doesn’t know which side the audience will be on.
While the show avoids the cliche of pitting two women against each other, Stiles and Olin’s characters find themselves in a rivalry that is infused with mutual respect and convenient camaraderie, said Stiles. At the risk of putting off viewers who might want a simple good/bad, sweet/evil dynamic between the two women, Stiles said distributor Sky gave them the go-ahead to “be bold and not to have to follow those old gender rules.”
She also related tales heard over the course of the seven-month shoot based in Nice — the Russian oligarch who has divers check his yacht for bombs every day, the villa owner who made his money in African gold mining.
Olin, who spent a lot of time in the Riviera growing up, said the undercurrent of the area would shock Americans who follow celebrities and stars.
Though she wouldn’t divulge the source of the quote, Olin said a wealthy friend told her, “Hollywood doesn’t know what money looks like.”
“And I thought, ‘She’s right.’ These are very elegant, sophisticated, educated people. They don’t go on television and show off a new gold watch,” she said. “It’s harder to get an insight into this world. It’s attractive to watch wealthy people suffer. It’s that thing where you see the fast cars and the boats and think, ‘They’re probably unhappy drug dealers.’ “
Olin said growing up in Europe and being exposed to this world helped in developing her character. “I’ve seen a lot of privilege, so I felt that I had a key,” she said.
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