The key to understanding European TV Series market


Interview with Steve Matthews

In your career you focus mostly on TV series such as Pustina or The Borgias. Do you think that they can be more important part of a global cinematography in comparison to cinema or television movies?

I think that TV series are the thing at the moment, up-to-date. They have been for some time. The reason for that being is that  they are going to dig back down to see  American television in the 90s, and how the pay cable things came up, how HBO and ShowTime changed from what they were to what they are now. I am not the economic guy, but there comes the tipping point where it is worth making drama. Drama series are very expensive, so for a local state broadcaster wants ratings and has a tendency to try to appeal to as many people as possible. If you are HBO in 1997-1998, you have a sense that people will pay for something special and you are required to give them a sense of exclusivity, a kind of level of quality that they are not getting anywhere else.

When you take The Sopranos, you have a strong sense of the writer’s possibilities. The series is the writer’s medium, because generally, the writer is in control across the large number of episodes. Director is coming in only for blocks of episodes at a time. This has been very good thing for writers, because as an artists they gained more control over the story and they can really work on characters.

How did your adventure with HBO start?

I was working for an Irish company and I was doing two shows at the same time. I’ve just finished The Borgias and I was producing a little low-budget gangster show in Ireland, and HBO somehow found me. My boss Anthony asked me, if I want the job. I replied that it’s a fantastic job. Then he said it’s Budapest-based and I said ‘Are you kidding me? I’ve just been to Budapest for three years, I have to go home eventually!’. Also, I was still in the middle of my Irish adventure so I turned him down. Then, two years later, I was just thinking what job to take, finishing with Irish and then he came back and said it’s changed, it’s London-based now. However, what I imagined I will do after being away in Ireland and Hungary for so long already, was ‘Well... okay! I’ll get back to London, I’ll get a job, I’ll produce a cop show, I’ll come home and actually occasionally see my wife, and occasionally live in my house’. None of that happened! I thought I will turn down the offer, but then Anthony had sent me some scripts.  One of them were the first episodes of Pustina and I read it and I thought: ‘That’s different! I’ve never done anything like this before. Nothing like this is in the UK. There is some courage here!’. So I took the job and I haven’t looked back. I can tease Štěpán Hulík that I took the job because of the script of Pustina.

As a producer you try to adapt HBO TV series to each of the European cinematographic markets. Don’t you think that such a process can standardize a plot of each production? Make TV series very similar to each other?

Looking at these territories, you can see raw talents, but perhaps I can bring some help on the genre carpentries or the things from my experience. Pustina is a very good example of that kind of balance between not getting in the way of Štěpán Hulík’s voice, but working it a little bit, and reminding him: it’s a murder mystery and it does need to get clues. That was a really good experience. So when it was firstly put together, as quite a small unit, there was a great deal of logic. You would think of getting it in the format, which is proven to work somewhere else, and a great deal of a plot carpentry has already been done. The early things we did were very sensible things to start with: it’s cheap, it’s two characters, you can let the director focus very much on the performance et cetera.You are right, your question is correct and this is the reason really we don’t want to do that anymore.

So things like Burning Bush and Pustina broke through and showed us how to get away from the formats, because it is very important for us, that projects grow kind of internally. What I would say on our defence is, even when we have taken a format, great efforts were made to ensure that the piece was taken by local writing teams and worked back up.There are two examples: Mammon which was an Norwegian format, and two countries liked that - Czech and Poland. Both of them liked that, because it’s a story about conspiracy which goes back to something that happened 25 years ago. And both territories found a reference to the events from 25 years ago just after communism. I think it is interesting that the Czech Mammon and the Polish Pakt are the same carpentry.

They are the same plot but they’ve covered a completely different tones. In Czech, it’s sort of more thoughtful political thriller and in Poland it’s more of an action movie with a lot of things blowing up. So a great deal of effort was put in to make sure the plots were made local.We have a feeling that nowadays we should do rather original series rather than use previous formats. We gathered great teams with valuable and talented people, we have writers and authors. Now it is time to say: ‘Let’s go to the next step and do more originals’. That’s exactly what my job is.

You appear as a consulting and executive producer. What is your influence on the final effect of a specific areas?

It would really depend on the project. I, personally, try to be as light-touch as possible. I like to consider myself and pitch myself to the local talent as a consultant. I think if we tip into, you must do it this way and this is always done in the west, I think we get into wrong kind of things. I very much like to think myself of how I can support. But essentially most of the work is in pre-production in scripting and in post-production. It’s supporting only on the creative site.

TV series that you produce are mostly crime stories or thrillers. Is that the key to understand the European market?

Well it is and it isn’t. This crime shows punch through. Why hasn’t a comedy punched through? Why hasn’t a sitcom from Denmark punched through? Maybe it can and maybe it can’t but language is a part of it certainly. In my job I read everything in translation so plots, paste, turning-points, clues, and fingerprints I can do but I can never get the nuances of the joke. So you look at this like The Killing. It has cleanness to it, it's very, very clean. It’s very structured. It’s a masterpiece, it’s a Sistine Chapel of storytelling and story lining, in some ways, because they keep that one mystery in the air for 20 episodes. It isn’t possible. It shouldn’t be possible. But because it’s so clean and so based on structures, it can be seen as quite easily accessible. So it is kind of an issue that there is a crime, medical, legal and these things. They work... they have worked forever because you are building dramatic stakes: ‘catch the killer! Don’t catch the killer! Innocent or guilty!’ But I do think that first wave of the scandi noir of damaged detectives in a jumper looking miserably off in the dark for 20 episodes is looking thinner and thinner in each generation.

HBO is known for short seasons. Where does this tendency come from?

Probably, historically, the answer is money. When I look at it from the UK, it’s really important point because if you did 22 hours of NYPD Blue there ain’t no way the one writer can write all of it. So, instantly, a team system was built from the 1980 in the States. In the UK and most of the Europe, for instance, there has never been the money to do 22 episodes of anything. You’ve run 4 or 6 episodes where there is more likely the single writer can write it. So it feel like a more single authored pieced. It feels more like a tradition that have come slightly for a theatre tradition that the writer overseeing the thing. The American system was always much more based on teamwork. I therefore think the reasons have been kind of historical and financial. So the length is the thing that we are looking at all the time but, to some extent, the shorter run feels more like a novel and a single story whereas when you got 24 episodes, it has to become the more old fashioned episodic form.

What do you think about creating events like Visegrad Film Forum?

One of the reasons that I come to the forum like this is because I’m looking for new talent, a young talent. The one of the things with The Killing is that they’ve found guys just coming out of the writing schools and they took care of  them and after some years they were ready to work on masterpiece like The Killing. We are looking for talents, so spread the word!


Questions by Kornel Nicoń
Written by Katarzyna Andrzejczak & Zuza Woźniak
Edited by Lehat Salah Rasheed