MIPCOM: On the Set of 'Deep State' With Mark Strong

Mark Strong as Max Easton 'Deep State,' the first regionally scripted commission from Fox Networks Group, Europe & Africa

The ambitious eight-part thriller, which launched in Cannes Monday, is the first regional scripted show from Fox Networks Group Europe & Africa.

In a dusty room on the outskirts of Casablanca in Morocco, one of the film industry’s most experienced gun handlers is carefully adding a scope to a sniper rifle he's just pulled out of a large sports bag. The man in question is Mark Strong, star of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Zero Dark Thirty, Kingsman and numerous other spy-tinged titles in which he’s been required to know his way around a firearm.

This time, he’s playing Max Easton, a former agent brought out of retirement in the Pyrenees to track down and eliminate a treacherous MI6/CIA cell only to find himself caught up in a covert intelligence war and a major conspiracy to profit from chaos in the Middle East.

But before Easton can line up his shot out of the window that looks out on a square below, his phone rings. It’s his wife, and an awkward conversation proceeds in which he offers scant information about his current whereabouts (or the gun now resting on his lap).

The person on the other end of the (real-life) line is, in fact, Hilary Bevan Jones, one of the U.K.’s most foremost drama producers, sitting just meters away in the corner of the crowded room. Around her, crew are squeezed into every spare bit of space, including Robert Connolly, the Australian director who was behind episodes of The Slap and 2014 family hit Paper Planes, and acclaimed Moroccan producer, Khadija Alami.

Welcome to Deep State, an ambitious eight-part espionage thriller that marks not only Strong’s return to the small screen after more than a decade focused on film, but Fox Networks Group Europe & Africa’s first regional scripted commission. It has its official launch at MIPCOM in Cannes on Monday.

Alongside Strong — who describes his vengeance-seeking character Easton as like a “dirty James Bond” — the show stars Joe Dempsie, famed for playing Gendry in Game of Thrones after breaking out alongside a wealth of U.K. talent in Skins, plus Karima McAdams (Vikings, Fearless), Alistair Petrie (The Night Manager), Mel Raido (Legend) and Lyne Renee (Parade’s End)

Written by Matthew Parkhill (Rogue), who also acts as showrunner and directs episodes 5-8 (Connolly helms 1-4) – Deep State unfolds across the U.K., U.S., Iran, Lebanon and France (although filming is solely taking place in Morocco and the U.K.). And while the Middle East plays heavily in the story, it’s not your average spy drama about Kalashnikov-wielding terrorists.

“It’s not an espionage show set in the Middle East going the way a lot of espionage shows or thrillers set in the Middle East are going,” says Parkhill over a cup of sugary mint tea, adding that he lists the 2005 George Clooney-starrer Syriana as his chief influence (and a film he has watched repeatedly). “It’s not about Islamic fundamentalism, it’s not about terrorism.”

The backdrop for the film is actually unnervingly current — the Iranian nuclear deal. Donald Trump may have returned the subject to headlines as he attempts to backtrack on the arrangements made during the Obama administration, but he’s also done Parkhill’s show another major publicity service, by continuously referencing the concept of a "deep state," a shadowy cabal of powerful, unelected bureaucrats who, the president has claimed, have been attempting to bring him down as part of their secret agenda.

“There’s this idea that beneath the governments it doesn’t matter who you elect, because it just carries on, whether it’s through the intelligence services or the corporation,” says Parkhill. “So the show is fascinating for me because you get to explore the highly personal story of a man lost in the wilderness, but because of the backdrop you can explore all these fascinating political ideas and areas. It’s not just a shoot ‘em up spy thriller.”

Jeff Ford, senior vp of content development at FNG Europe & Africa, who commissioned Deep State alongside vp scripted drama Sara Johnson (both also exec produce), claims Parkhill’s pitch landed just at the right time.

“We’d only just started talking to producers and putting the message out there that we wanted to create European drama,” he says. “We wanted it almost immediately, but it took a while, as these things do, and it was also our first. But as the time has gone on and the story as developed, it’s become more of the moment.”

As for the man at the center of Deep State’s action, Strong says he was willing to return to the small screen — and a commitment to months of filming — because of the strength of the story.

“I thought I’d like to do something if the right thing came along, and this one was the most exciting,” he says. “I just wanted to find out what was going to happen. I loved the fact that it moved from Beirut to France to the U.K. It moved time frames as well and you’re not spoon-fed with this story either. It’s not a narrative for dummies — it’s complicated and you have to hang in there. And that’s my personal taste.”