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Channel 4’s gripping new French drama, The Returned, tells the story of a handful of individuals returning to their Alpine hometown in a state of confusion – only to discover that they have been dead for several years. The series is loosely based on a 2004 film of the same name. Caroline Benjo, who produced both, reveals why she wanted to remake the film, and discusses the phenomenal success of the series.
The series is a remake of a 2004 film, which you also produced. Why did you decide you wanted to remake it?
Because there were some aspects of the story, of this really strong concept, that were not developed at all in the film, because it was a feature film, and it had a very specific approach. We really felt there was potential to go further, and a TV series was the perfect conduit.
What were the areas that you wanted to explore further?
We wanted to look a little more at the intimacy of it. In the film it was a bit abstract – in the film it was more of a metaphor of a sociological-political situation – they could have been immigrants, for example. Here, we really wanted to explore the emotional complexities of dead people coming back.
How did you come to choose Fabrice Gobert to write it?
I saw his first feature in Cannes three years ago, which was called Simon Werner Disappeared, and I thought it was amazing. It was really unusual in France, because he was really playing around with the genre. It felty both American and yet totally French at the same time. I thought he was doing something that nobody does in France. And when I met him, he’d heard about the project being in development for a while, and he’d never dreamed of being asked to do it. But he was really, really keen on doing it, it was a dream for him.
You wanted the film to be remade, and you had very strong opinions about what you wanted it to be about. Though Fabrice was writing it, did you then get heavily involved in the process?
Yes, along with Jimmy Desmarais, my producing partner, I was very involved in the writing process. We absolutely knew what we didn’t want, but we didn’t know exactly what we wanted, it was very difficult to grab. But with Fabrice, we very, very precisely tried to define what we didn’t want to do, and in doing so, we really grabbed our story. The day he came back with the scene with Camille coming back home, thinking she just left a few hours before, opening the fridge because she was starving and wanted to eat, and her mother finding her, we felt he had really found a tone that was extremely special.
The show is visually stunning, with the scenery and the cinematography really adding to the atmosphere. Did you always plan to shoot it in an alpine setting?
Yes, actually. Fabrice had the idea very early on to have a very isolated community surrounded by the mountains. It gives the feeling of them being out of reach, where the people are almost prisoners of this place. And it’s also very cinematic, being surrounded by mountains is like being in a citadel.
Where was the show filmed? Was it difficult to find the locations?
In France there are plenty of places like this. We filmed in Annecy, which is really at the doorway to the Alps. It was the perfect place – you have a real city surrounded by mountains and villages and forest and wildlife very close to the city. So that was easy to find. It was more complicated to create a visual atmosphere. The place in itself is very beautiful, but what Fabrice did with the architecture, and the way he framed it and isolated it from the rest, was very important. It is both rural and urban at the same time, with nature very close to the urban architecture. That was complicated to create, because it’s about location, but also about framing and lighting.
The actors in the show won’t be known to viewers over here. Were they well-known in France before the series went out?
No, actually. We tried to make this with people who weren’t that known. It was very important for us that people weren’t watching and thinking “Oh my God, there’s the person from this series or that series.” We wanted them to create a real collective, a group of people, a community, and we also wanted to have some new faces emerge from the series. And we wanted to do something which we rarely do in France, which is mix people coming from different acting backgrounds – theatre, TV, cinema, whatever – what was important for us was how interesting they were for the roles, we didn’t care about the rest. We didn’t have any obligation to take very well-known people.
How has the show been received by critics and viewers in France?
It got an extremely strong critical response, but of course that doesn’t mean that the audience is going to follow. And here, what was amazing, was that everyone was talking about it. The audience responded really strongly as well. They were given something that they could relate to – they could say “Those people, I know them. Those cops look like French cops. These surroundings are French surroundings. But – oh my God – the storyline is something like the British or the Americans do. They dare to do it, and usually we don’t. This kind of story doesn’t belong in the French tradition. So it was a very, very strong identification process. We had a very strong response through the entire series. It was quite exceptional.
You mention the differences between French drama and English or American drama. What do you think those differences are?
I think we are a bit afraid of the whole fiction genre – we don’t think it belongs to our tradition. We are used to a naturalistic, intimate approach, social drama, stuff like that. But when we say things like Borgen, or some of the Israeli series, we thought “Oh my God, perhaps it’s not only the Americans and the British who can do this. Maybe we can do it.”
In this country, with Spiral and now The Returned, French drama is reaching a new audience. Is this a very exciting time for French TV drama?
Yes, I think it is. It will depend. Canal+ and Arte are doing an astonishing job, but we don’t yet have what you have in the UK, with public television. Public television in France is not taking enough risks. They don’t get the audience they want and need, so they don’t dare. The worst thing that can happen to creativity is fear. The returned was a huge risk, artistically, because basically we didn’t know at all if it was not going to be ridiculous. We didn’t have any references. But I really hope it gives other people the desire and the boldness to go for it.
What are the big English-language shows that have been hits in France recently?
Homeland – it’s very strong. I think when it’s released, House of Cards will be pretty strong. Downton Abbey is just being broadcast, and I’m really curious to see what’s going to happen, but I think that will do very well too. Girls as well. There are many, many shows that are hits here – this is part of the problem as well – when they’re French shows, people are less interested, because it’s better elsewhere. So this is what we have to build, an awareness that this is possible in our country.
Where else in the world has the show been sold?
It’s been sold to over 55 territories around the world.
Has the success of the series exceeded all of your expectations?
Oh yes, my God! Definitely. All we had during the making if the show was pain, doubt and fear – and a kind of very slight excitement thinking that behind all of that, if this was working, it would definitely do something. But I never dared to believe it was going to be what it became. It was a lot of work to get there.
The Returned will be coming to Channel 4 in June.