After a three-year absence, how did you approach this new season of The Returned?
The first decision was to go back to the story six months after the end of the first season. It took a little while for us to be fully convinced. Gradually, we found the way to resume the thread of the story through the character of Berg (Laurent Lucas), the engineer who arrives in the first episode and who’s trying to figure out what happened. Coming from outside the community, he carries out his investigation. But we soon sense that he, too, has things to hide. He’s a sort of guide who poses the same questions as the viewer. Compared to the first season, we had to be careful not to leave the mysteries open for too long. We wanted to clearly re-establish the tensions by redefining the relationships between the various characters.
The first episode starts out with a fresh premise, like a second pilot.
One of our references was Scream and all those horror films in which the characters suffer some kind of trauma. You catch up with them a while later, and you wonder what they’ve been doing between their first terrible adventure and the present. When the problems start again, they are a few steps ahead of those who are experiencing it for the first time. That’s the case for the twins and their parents, but also for Victor, Serge, Tony, and Adèle. Compared to Season 1, they are more at the heart of the action. Before, the characters were innocent, but now they have a past. They find themselves opposite the soldiers and Berg, who are discovering a world they had no idea existed. The dramatic potential there is strong.
Did the idea of locating the action in what has become a ghost town, sealed off by the army, emerge early on?
I worked with Audrey Fouché on the writing, and we thought a lot about cities that had undergone disasters, like New Orleans or Fukushima. The ghost town in The Returned had to be largely deserted, but some life was nonetheless still carrying on there. The soldiers are there to create the notion of control. We don’t leave that valley, and we don’t set up any “realistic” elements like the media, because that is not where the realism in the series is located.
The series doesn't show much of external life in the town, but a great deal of the internal life of the characters. One has the impression of entering a parallel world, one that is slow and deep.
Our aim was to create an atmosphere. In this new season, the strongest signal to send was the fact that we weren't going to tip into a genre drama based on action. We are still dealing with the intimate, but in a different way. After the return of the dead in Season 1 – despite more of the Returned appearing – we observe how each of them readapts to life in the longer term. There is a book which left a big impression on me between the two seasons, and I talked about it with Anne Consigny and Yara Pilartz who play Claire and Camille; it’s Claustria by Régis Jauffret. It’s about a young girl who is sequestrated by her father, and it doesn't necessarily have any direct link with The Returned, but it contains lots of details on the way that person managed to create a coherent universe for herself, despite living in a cellar. Her capacity to adapt trumped everything. Our characters are living through an incredible situation, yet manage to recreate the everyday.
Camille and Claire will argue over nothing. They know that it’s impossible to live together, as if there’s no common ground between the living and the Returned, but they also want to reject this rule. I like to explore people’s capacity to adapt to impossible situations.
Mourning was the central theme of the first season; this repeatedly evoked parent-child relationship, and questions of filiation. I’m thinking of the twin girls and their parents, Victor, of course, Clotilde Hesme’s character, or Guillaume Gouix’s.
When we started thinking about the series a few years ago, Canal Plus used the term “supernatural soap”. I thought it was interesting, in this strange universe, to evoke relationships between parents and children in a different way. For me, The Returned has always been a series about love. Family ties, handing down, what it means to be a mother – it’s fascinating to explore all that starting from some supernatural situations. Most of the discussions we had during writing were around this theme. Rather than fantastic plot twists, we are looking for intimate story lines.
There’s also a romantic dimension.
We wanted to set up some love stories – not formulaicaly, but because I think it’s very powerful if men and women continue to love one another in difficult situations. Audrey Fouché and I discussed the book Love in the Time of Cholera, which proves that in a situation as grave as an epidemic, people continue to need love affairs. More generally, the question of bonds is reformulated by what happens to the various protagonists. It’s a wonderful subject, it’s inexhaustible.
What approach did you take to writing the new series?
It all flowed from a fabulous encounter with the screenwriter Audrey Fouché, who worked with Tom Fontana on Borgia. Together, we wrote the story for the whole season. I worked with Emmanuel Carrère and Fabien Adda on the flashbacks 35 years before. Audrey and I then wrote more developed synopses or step outlines that we passed on to Fabien Adda and Coline Abert. They wrote versions with dialogue, and then we took over again. Each stage enriched the next. The Returned is not an easy series to write because of the links between the past and present. We would sometimes have ideas while writing, say, episode four which would change certain aspects of the earlier episodes. We were seeking coherence. From a visual point of view, the influence of the photographer Gregory Crewdson was clear in Season 1.
Have any other influences contributed to the look of the new season?
In THE RETURNED, the image often says more than the dialogue. This season, we had to steer the viewer to imagine a partially flooded town, a place surrounded by mountains. We set ourselves some new challenges in terms of special effects. Sébastien Ram from Mikros was closely involved. That allowed me to envisage scenes that I wouldn’t necessarily have been able to stage in Season 1. For the visual aspects, working with director of photography Patrick Blossier was once again very fruitful. One of our main reference points was a long way from the universe of blockbuster movies: it was the engravings of Gustave Doré, which I discovered at an exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay in 2014. I was struck by these illustrations of fairytales, the Bible, and from Greek mythology, with figures in water, the forest, and in darkness. The latter aspect fascinated me. In the new season, the characters at times have no electricity or lighting. We had to bring this feeling to life. Gustave Doré was a good inspiration. In his work, the light is faked, invented, but it brings a power that seemed ideal to include in our universe between realism and fantasy. More than in the first season, we allowed ourselves to go far into the realm of the unreal.
Belief is still the underlying theme of THE RETURNED.
It’s the principle of the supernatural as I see it: entering a universe that is unimaginable in real life, peopled by characters who themselves are confronted with their limits in terms of reality. The military commander, played by Laurent Capelluto, embodies that. Throughout the season, we see him reacting to information that grows increasingly strange. He hangs on to a kind of reason, he tries to understand, until he finally snaps.
The group Mogwai has again composed the music that is both dreamy and unsettling.
They provided us with some material even before the start of filming. Their music gave us lots of inspiration. They understood that we were heading towards something more suspenseful. Their work is in keeping with Season 1, and at the same time subtly moves away from it. The moods are more melancholic and less focused on the notion of genre, like the new episodes.