First World War drama Parade's End is one of the biggest foreign TV series to shoot in Belgium. A collaboration between HBO and the BBC, it was brought to the country, and to Flanders in particular, by a winning combination of locations, financial incentives and entrepreneurial local collaborators.
Text Ian Mundell
Parade's End is based on a series of four novels from the 1920s by English writer Ford Madox Ford. Set before, during and after the First World War, they explore the inner life of Christopher Tietjens, an Englishman from an old family who is caught between a faithless wife, Sylvia, and his love for a young suffragette, Valentine. Written in a complex, modernist style, the books represent a challenge for any screen adaptation.
The project originated with British production company Mammoth Screen, and executive producers Michele Buck and Damien Timmer. They invited renowned playwright Tom Stoppard to adapt the books for the screen and Susanna White (Generation Kill, Jane Eyre, Bleak House) was engaged to direct.
The road to Belgium began with producer David Parfitt of Trademark Films, who had worked with Stoppard on projects such as the film Shakespeare in Love. He was helping assemble the production, in particular trying to determine the territories that would work together as locations and coproduction partners.
The action of the story takes place largely in southern England and around Rouen in northern France, and the possibility was being discussed of shooting the non-English scenes in Ireland or Canada. While financially attractive, neither offered the authenticity of mainland Europe. 'We'd looked at the Belgian tax breaks for a while, for feature projects, and I thought that surely it makes more sense to come here, where it happened, than it does to go to Canada or to Ireland and recreate it,' says Parfitt.
'We could get brilliant value out of great locations, so it worked financially and creatively, which is the perfect mix for me' – David Parfitt, Trademark Films
His contact in Belgium was Martin Dewitte of Anchorage Entertainment. Meeting in Cannes, they found they were both working on projects set around the First World War and started to talk about a possible collaboration. 'They still had gap financing to find of €2.5-3 million,' Dewitte recalls. 'We could help through the Flanders Audiovisual Fund’s (VAF) Media Fund and the tax shelter, so we started talking with a number of possible partners. In the meantime we invited the producers to Belgium to convince them to do it here.'
Over three days, Parfitt and Selwyn Roberts were taken around the country to look at locations, principally the former battlefields of western Flanders, and also at post-production houses. Parfitt was impressed: 'We could get brilliant value out of great locations, so it worked financially and creatively, which is the perfect mix for me.'
Meanwhile Dewitte and Jan Vrints (pictured), of film finance company Mollywood, were working to put together the elements of the Belgian finance package. Although it was an unusually big production for Belgium, it was an attractive one.
'I knew that the government was supporting things related to the First World War centenary,' says Vrints. 'Then there was the record of production company Mammoth, along with the BBC and HBO. The financing was 70-80% complete, and these are parties you can trust to have a sound financial structure. For these reasons, I knew I could push on and try to convince other people to step into this production.'
Mollywood took the unusual step, in Belgium at least, of guaranteeing to close the finance gap. That gave Vrints time to approach Flemish public broadcaster VRT and bring it on board as a co-producer. As well as attractive programming, involvement in Parade's End gave the broadcaster a chance to prepare for a major First World War drama series of its own that will air in 2014, coinciding with the anniversary of the conflict.
In turn, the involvement of VRT meant that Parade's End could apply to the Media Fund, administered by VAF, which supports TV productions in Flanders. This resulted in production support worth €150,000.
Meanwhile, the BNP Paribas Fortis Film Fund had been brought on board to provide investment through the tax shelter. 'In a little over a month everything was in place and we could start writing the co-production agreement and finance agreement,' says Dewitte.
The entire five-part series costs close to €15.7 million.
The next step was to confirm the locations. The idea was to shoot all of the non-English scenes in Belgium. 'Of course they were looking for flat country where trenches could be dug,' says Dewitte, 'but they also needed German-looking roads, a German hunting castle and even a Scottish castle (we found one!)(pictured). They needed Parisian streets and a beautiful Parisian church, and all sorts of other things.'
The battlefields posed a particular challenge. 'It had to be a place where we could dig trenches, where we could see for at least 2km without houses or anything. It had to be no man's land.' The initial idea was to shoot these scenes in Flanders, but the same risk of flooding that blighted trenches during the war made it necessary to relocate to higher ground. Eventually a location was found near Namur.
Meanwhile, open country near Veurne was adopted for a military camp. A house was taken over to stand in for the headquarters, a parade ground was built and along with a few rows of tents that would later be extended by digital replication. 'I was looking for a landscape that would go on for ever,' said director Susanna White in a news report from the set.
Shooting in a genuine First World War landscape made an impression on Stoppard, who visited the Belgian sets several times. 'One feels one is in the world of Parade's End, or parts of it,' he says. 'These are classic vistas and one responds to them. One wants to put a camera on them and tilt the camera to follow them all the way. It's great.'
Some of the visual cues have come from northern European landscape painting. 'It's the big sky,' Stoppard says. 'More than one composition in the film is eloquent of 19th Century painting in the Netherlands and northern France.'
Cast and crew
The cast of Parade's End includes some rising British stars, with Benedict Cumberbatch (War Horse, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) as Tietjens and Rebecca Hall (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Town) as Sylvia. Supporting players include Rupert Everett, Janet McTeer and Miranda Richardson.
Smaller roles are filled with local acting talent such as Jurgen Delnaet (Moscow, Belgium), Hilde Heijnen and Leslie De Gruyter. 'Given the balance of the script that was probably the best we could do,' Parfitt says, 'but what we were able to do was take some Belgian crew to London. They worked with us from the very beginning, then bridged into Belgium.'
The production spent six-and-a-half weeks in Belgium, out of a shoot lasting sixteen-and-a-half weeks in total. Even for Parfitt it felt like a big operation, and it was clear that it was much larger than the average Belgian production. 'The local crew adapted pretty quickly to that,' he says. 'There were no holes that I was aware of, but lots of opportunities.'
Even so, adapting to the demands of such a large production was the main challenge for the Belgian co-producers. Dewitte: 'We had to look out for more and more locations that apparently they couldn't find in the UK. We ended up with more scenes than foreseen, so that was good for us, but it was quite stressful.'
According to Vrints, the key for negotiating these obstacles is open communications. 'If the communication is clear, then things work out,' he says. 'We were clear about what we could do and they were clear about what they expected. These elements are crucial for getting foreign productions into Belgium.'
In addition to shooting in Belgium, all of the post-production for Parade's End was taking place in in the country. Visual effects were being handled by Benuts in Brussels while sound is the responsibility of Galaxy Studios in Mol. On top of that, the music for the series is written by Flemish composer and conductor Dirk Brossé and performed by the Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra. Brossé’s score is described as ‘breathtakingly beautiful’. ‘Dirk’s music is wonderful and I’m thrilled with the response,’ says Air Edel’s music producer Maggie Rodford.
Dewitte estimates that around €5 million was invested locally. 'We could say that a good part of the series is Belgian, or even Flemish,' he says. Vrints also sees Parade's End as a Flemish success story. 'The government and all the funders on the Flemish side helped close the circle and did everything in their power to make this possible,' he says. 'It's really a united front.'
Parade’s End is scheduled to premiere on Friday 24 August on BBC (UK).
Stand in for England
Mollywood's experience with Parade's End lead directly to another large BBC series coming to Flanders this fall. The White Queen is set during the 15th century War of the Roses, when competing dynasties fought for the English throne. Based on The Cousins' War novels by Philippa Gregory (author of The Other Boleyn Girl), the BBC says it will be one of the most ambitious projects it has ever attempted.
The whole series will be shot in Belgium, mainly in and around Bruges. When producer Company Pictures first got in contact with Mollywood through a connection made on Parade's End, Ireland and Hungary were also being considered for the series.
'Locations were crucial,' says Jan Vrints. 'They needed a lot of castles and a lot of old buildings. What we did, together with Location Flanders was put two location scouts on the case for two weeks. They came back with a list of hidden locations in Belgium, things that were not too obvious, and that really convinced the English artistically.'
After that, it was a case of matching the financial incentives offered by the other countries. This was achieved through the Flanders Audiovisual Fund’s (VAF) Media Fund and Flemish public broadcaster VRT, which became a co-producer. Tax shelter funding will be provided through the BNP Paribas Fortis Film Fund.
The series will begin shooting in late August or the beginning of September 2012.