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Inside the writers' room: Meet the Europeans bidding to create TV on a par with America's best

12 people are spending €4,500 each to take part in Europe’s first post-grad programme focused on writing and producing TV series. Could they create the next ‘Mad Men’ or ‘Breaking Bad’?

Image: Frank Ockenfels/AMC

IT COULD BE a scene from a television drama: five Germans, three Frenchmen, a Briton, an Italian, a Bulgarian and a Hungarian, all cooking up a plot together in their London hideout.

But this not-so-dirty dozen are on the other side of the small screen, as they are taking part in Europe’s first postgraduate programme focused on writing and producing TV series.

Dubbed “Serial Eyes”, the nine-month course running between Berlin and London is a response to the new generation of TV series such as “Breaking Bad”, “Mad Men” and “The Killing”.

“Watch as many TV shows or movies as you can and you show us what you like,” special effects expert Erik Ellefsen tells the class at the London Film School in trendy Covent Garden.

The 12 students listen intently as Ellefsen uses a video sequence to demonstrate how to show a person shooting himself in the head in close-up. He then talks about special effects budgets, and about the working relationship with writers and directors.

“Collaboration is the key word,” adds Ellefsen, who created the effects in the British series “Misfits” and “Utopia”.

The writers’ room

The course gives intensive training in the writing and production of series with a focus on European markets, but with elements of the “writers’ room” culture that lies behind many of the top US shows.

The collaboration between the Deutsche Film und Fernsehakademie (German Film and Television Academy) in Berlin and the London Film School was launched in January 2013 at the “Totally Serialized” television festival in London by the German academy’s boss Jan Schuette.

“There was a realisation that there is a lack of training about how to make TV series in Europe,” Lorraine Sullivan, the director of the “Totally Serialized” festival, told AFP.

Adaptation

She said that “working in a group doesn’t exist at all in Europe,” unlike in the United States where most major series have writers’ rooms gathered around a ‘showrunner’ where ideas can be bounced around in a high-pressure creative environment.

“The idea is not to import the writers’ room to Europe wholesale, but to bring in a bit of that culture of cooperation,” Sullivan said.

That will fill a gap, says Dominique Jubin, assistant director of drama at the French channel Canal Plus.

In France it is difficult to find “experienced writers who are able to work on developing a series that they have not necessarily created themselves,” says Jubin.

Whatever works

Laurent Mercier, one of two French writers on “Serial Eyes”, which costs €4,500 to take part in, said the course helped teach “a sense of what works and what doesn’t internationally.”

“It gives you an edge,” said Mercier, who graduated from a Paris-based TV screenwriting school in 2010 and has worked for French channels.

Anna-Katharina Brehm, a student from Germany, praised the quality of the lecturers, including Frank Spotnitz, one of the key figures behind the hugely popular US science-fiction series “The X-Files.”

“One of the best things I have ever, ever done,” she said.

The students are ideally between 25 and 35 and must have written or produced at least one television drama themselves to be accepted on the course.

Over the nine months, they must collaborate in groups of four to create a drama series and write one of their own.

Intensive 

Mercier’s group wrote a police drama while his individual project was about football match-fixing, but done in the style of pioneering US crime drama “The Wire.” Brehm meanwhile came up with a series focusing on a community with hidden secrets, along the lines of “Twin Peaks” or hit French series “The Returned”.

The students spend six months in Berlin before returning to London for intensive work with Britain’s television professionals behind shows such as the award-winning country-house drama “Downton Abbey”.

“You meet the creme de la creme here and the idea is to take on board the American model, while adapting it for Europe,” added Mercier, who hopes to set up his own production company next year.

After London, the young screenwriters headed to Cannes this month for MIPTV, the world’s biggest media sales event — while Lorraine Sullivan is taking applications from the next set of Serial Eyes hopefuls with stars in their eyes.

- © AFP, 2014

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