When the BBC announced The White Queen at the beginning of 2012 it called the series one of the most ambitious projects it had ever attempted. It is the second major British TV series to shoot in Flanders in recent years, following in the footsteps of World War One drama Parade’s End. Producer Eurydice Gysel of Czar Belgium put together the package that persuaded them that Flanders could double for 15th Century England. And there’s more: Czar is also a co-production partner in Alex van Warmerdam’s Cannes Competition entry Borgman.

Ian Mundell | Portrait Thomas Vanhaute

eurThe story of The White Queen is set during the War of the Roses, when competing dynasties fought for the English throne. Based on the novels by Philippa Gregory, who also wrote The Other Boleyn Girl, the narrative brings out the important role played by women in one of the most glamorous periods in English history. Jan Vrints who put together the finance package for Parade’s End, introduced Eurydice Gysel to series producers Company Pictures. At that point several countries were being considered for shooting the series, including Ireland and Hungary. The financial advantages of coming to Belgium were clear, but more was required to make it a contender.

‘They knew about our Tax Shelter and they wanted to know about locations, so we did two weeks of scouting all over Belgium for castles and so on,’ Gysel recalls. ‘Because of those locations and the Tax Shelter they decided to shoot here.’Outside locations were found around the cities of Bruges and Ghent, while a studio in Bruges was refitted for interior work on the series. Meanwhile the financial package was completed, with a Tax Shelter contribution from the BNP Paribas Fortis Film Fund, co-production funds from Flemish public broadcaster VRT and support from the VAF/Media Fund. A bid has also been placed for the Screen Flanders fund, which aims to attract foreign co-productions to the region.

Veerle Baetens

vThe series shot for 120 days, with around 80 people on set every day. Naturally most of the cast is British. But Flemish actress Veerle Baetens (The Broken Circle Breakdown) also has an important role as Margaret of Anjou, a formidable French noblewoman who married England's King Henry II. A number of smaller parts are also filled by local actors. Company Pictures brought its own line producer and, being new to the country, was cautious about delegating technical roles to foreign crew. ‘In the beginning I had to fight a little bit,’ Gysel says. ‘I didn't want it just to be the English coming over and just using us, and in that way it was sometimes a tough discussion. But in the end it worked out very well.’ Sound was always going to be handled locally, but as time went on Flemish crew took on more responsibility in the camera department, art department and in assistant director positions. Given the nature of the production, costume was also an important department. ‘Initially they wanted to bring everything from England,’ Gysel recalls. ‘Then we made some costumes here and convinced them we could do it.’

This is Gysel's first experience of a large TV production, although her background in both feature films and advertising means that she was not intimidated by the scale. ‘Sometimes the money for one commercial is the same as for a feature film, only you shoot it in a few days, so in a way you know how to handle the demands, how to handle the budgets.’ Czar already has further TV projects lined up. A second collaboration with Company Pictures is under discussion. This will be another literary costume drama, which could shoot in 2014/5 if everything falls into place. In-house Czar is developing an idea for a TV series that it hopes to co-produce with France and Denmark. ‘We want to make something with international appeal, like Twin Peaks or The Kingdom, something you want to follow,' she says. ‘It should also be, for the directors, something that is more intriguing and visually interesting than regular TV.’

Czar label

pdCzar Belgium was created in 1999 by director Koen Mortier as an affiliate of production company Czar Netherlands. The aim was to give him more creative control in pitching and making commercials in Belgium, and also to provide a platform to develop fiction projects. His debut feature film Ex Drummer was completed in 2007, followed in 2010 by 22nd of May. Meanwhile Czar expanded, attracting like-minded filmmakers working creatively in advertising and nurturing occasional fiction and documentary projects. Gysel was invited on board as a producer in 2000, first handling advertising and then taking over the fiction department. In 2010 she became executive producer and managing director of the whole company. Advertising remains the bedrock of Czar's business, driven by the creativity of its directors.

‘They don't see commercials as just a way of making money,’ Gysel explains. ‘They work hard and, if they think we need to film in a certain way to make a better commercial, then they fight for that.' At the same time Czar helps its directors realise their ambitions in fiction, beginning with support in developing scripts for short and feature films, then helping put together a production. Recent shorts include Rivers Return by Joe Vanhoutteghem, a looping narrative about the cycle of life, which was screened at the Locarno Film Festival in 2012, and Perfect Drug by Toon Aerts, a genre-bending flight of fancy that was in competition at this year's Clermont-Ferrand film festival. Both directors are now thinking about follow-up projects, with Vanhoutteghem working on the script for a feature.

Torino Filmlab

Other projects under way include a short film from Kevin Meul, which will shoot in the summer, to be followed by his debut feature My First Highway. This dark teenage movie shows how a young boy learns about love and life in the cruellest way possible. In 2012 the project was the first by a Flemish director to be selected for the Torino Filmlab's prestigious Script & Pitch programme. Meanwhile it received production support from the Flanders Audiovisual Fund (VAF). Following in his footsteps is Kenneth Mercken, whose first feature project Coureur has been selected for the Torino programme this year. The film explores the life of a young professional cyclist, driven to use performance enhancing drugs by the pressure to win. ‘It's about being crazy, doping and cycling, and not winning,’ Gysel says. ‘It's also about the relationship between him and his father.’

Alongside Mortier's current projects, Czar's next big feature production is Waste Land, the third by Pieter van Hees after Left Bank (2008) and Dirty Mind (2009). This tells the story of a Brussels cop who becomes obsessed with a murder in the city's African quarter, letting it slowly take over both his professional and personal life. The lead will be taken by Dardenne brothers protégé Jérémie Renier (The Kid with a Bike, Cloclo), who has learned Dutch in order to play the bilingual role. Natali Broods (Hotel Swooni) plays his wife. Shooting started in April, with Bac International on board to handle international sales. The company is also involved as a co-production partner in both Alex van Warmerdam’s Cannes Competition entry Borgman and Etrange couleur des larmes de mon corps by Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani. While Gysel's role as a producer is more about the money than the content of the films, it's the creativity of Czar that makes the work so rewarding. ‘Our directors demand a lot so you have to be creative with your budgets. In the end I'm always surprised by the results, and that pushes me to go further.’

Koen Mortier

As well as being Czar's founder and one of its main directors, Koen Mortier acts as the company's creative producer. ‘In the company he's the one who reads projects and helps to develop those he recognizes the hand of an author in,’ Gysel says. He also has two feature projects of his own underway.

The first is an adaptation of Haunted, a novel by Chuck Palahniuk, the cult US author whose Fight Club was brought to the big screen by David Fincher. Haunted is about 17 writers who commit to a three-month retreat in the hope that one of them will emerge with the great American novel. Mortier and Gysel acquired the rights in 2008, but it has been a long journey to secure finance to make the film in the USA. Indus Media & Entertainment finally bought production rights this year. Mortier has written the script, which is currently being polished by Brock Norman Brock. ‘We want to have the final version ready for Cannes to sell to distributors, sales agents and especially actors,’ says Gysel. All being well, the film should shoot in the fall or winter of 2013/4.

misMeanwhile Mortier has also bought the film rights to Dimitri Verhulst's Monologue of Someone Who Got used to Talking to Herself, about the mysterious death of a Belgian cycle racer in Senegal. The story is loosely based on the sudden death of one of the biggest cycling talents Belgium ever generated: Frank Vandenbroucke. This will be the second story by Verhulst to get the big screen treatment after Felix van Groeningen's The Misfortunates.

Published on Wednesday 5 June 2013

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