We Talk To The Creator Of The Best Show You Haven’t Seen Yet

The year’s best new show just might be a French TV series about dead people.

The Returned, an absorbing French TV drama series adapted from the 2004 French film ‘They Came Back’, is intriguingly written, breathtakingly rendered and should go straight to the top of your must-watch TV list. If you haven’t yet, here are a few reasons you should watch it. 1) The eight episodes of its first season – its only so far – are a relatively low time commitment, 2) The acting, writing and direction are all superb and, 3) There’s nothing quite like it on television.

The Returned unspools with the dread and disquiet of Twin Peaks, the supernatural elements of something like True Blood, and the stinging social commentary typical of French cinema. It examines regret, identity and grief through the prism of both a supernatural thriller and domestic drama. Mostly, though, it deals with what remains of the dead. The walking dead. But instead of soulless zombies with no remnant of their former personalities, The Returned here refers to those departed, who, unaware of their own death or the circumstances under which they have been reanimated, return to their past lives, attempt to reintegrate into society and figure out why they have been reborn in the first place. Pedestrian recently caught up with the series’ French creator Fabrice Gobert to discuss his plans for season two, why there’s such a long gap between the seasons and how to put emotion into a supernatural drama series.      

What creative considerations do you have to make when adapting a television show from source material? What kind of liberties do you feel you can and can’t take? I saw Robin Campillo’s movie in 2004 and liked it a lot. I was especially impressed by the way he makes the fantastic come naturally in a very realistic and ordinary situation. We have not a very strong tradition of fantasy movies in France and “Les Revenants” was a very singular proposition.  When Jimmy Desmarais and Caroline Benjo, the producers of the series, proposed me to work on “Les Revenants”, they told me to feel free about what is in the movie. I feel both series and film are really different. The beginning is the same – an inexplicable come back of dead people in a small town – but in the series, the come back is seen in a more intimate way. There are thousands of Revenants in the movie, there are only 5 or 6 in the series. The main difference is also that dead people in the series are more living than the living people; they are hungry, they never feel tired, they want to make love…and they don’t even know they are dead.    

How do you balance the supernatural elements with the humanistic ones? How do you keep people emotionally invested when there are supernatural elements in a TV show? This question was central in the creation of the series. We were always careful not to go too far in the supernatural. With Emmanuel Carrère who wrote with me the first scripts we often asked ourselves: “What would I do if it happened to me ?”. We wanted the characters to have normal reactions in these incredible situations. “Les Revenants” is a series with fantastical elements but it’s not really a fantastical series. 

What surprised you most about making this television show? I was very surprised that a lot of very talented actors and technicians working usually for cinema accepted with a great enthusiasm to work on that TV series. And especially on a supernatural and risky TV series. In France, people love TV series but French TV series are still not very considered… I hope it’s going to change. I was also very surprised – and so happy – that a lot of people like the series in France because it was a little bit dark and slow and the main characters are not cops but dead people.

What were the major challenges in making this television show? What challenges did you face personally as a showrunner? This was the first series I created so everything was exciting and difficult. The most important thing to me was to be well accompanied in this hard adventure. And so I was. I was very lucky to work with the very talented cinematographer Patrick Blossier, one of the best bands in the world, Mogwai, and some of the most brilliant French actors. As a showrunner – that was not exactly my job because the system is different in France – I have to control the identity and the coherence of all 8 episodes, even the ones I could not direct – and which were directed by Frederic Mermoud. It was difficult because in France, director is usually the boss. But Frederic kindly accepted my presence and my creative intervention.    

What was your process for plotting out the second season? There were a lot of ideas I could not use in the first season and I am very happy to have the opportunity to develop these ideas in season two. I work hard since the end of the diffusion with three others screenwriters – Fabien Adda, Audrey Fouché and Coline Abert. We are intending to shoot in February 2014. In France, we can’t shoot before all the scripts are written. That’s partly why there is so much time between season one and season two. And I’m really sorry for that.

Tell us about the collaborative process. I did not work alone! For the script, I was very lucky to work with the great writer Emmanuel Carrère and with a young and talented screenwriter called Fabien Adda. I also did not direct all the episodes. The second part of the series was directed by Frederic Mermoud. The creation of a series like “Les Revenants” needs a lot of collaboration and I am very open to that.   

What do you see as the main differences between the way television is made in Europe and the way it is made in America? What can they learn from each other? I don’t know enough about the way American series are created to compare but I know that a lot of what I know I owe to American series. I watched a lot of pilots when I was writing the first episode. And I was astonished by the perfect exposition in the first episode of Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Mad Men. There is a complex and fascinating technique to develop the stories and introduce the main characters at the same time.     

What do you personally know about grief and loss? Thankfully I’ve never directly suffered a powerful loss. That’s maybe why I could have work on this series for such a long time…    

What are you most excited about going into season two? The story is not over ! We have so many things to tell and I’m so happy to have the opportunity to do it. But the most exciting thing for me is to work again with the same staff and actors.    

What are your favourite TV shows? I love a lot series but my favourite ones ares certainly The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and The Wire. The Sopranos for the way it mixes something very cinematographic and very specific – the Mafia – and something very realistic and very universal – how it is hard to be a father, a husband and a son. I love Six Feet Under for the complexity of the characters and the brilliant dialogues. And I have been astonished by the rhythm, the direction and the atmosphere of The Wire, which changed they way I see series on TV.  I am also a very big fan of “The Slap” ! Very clever and very singular series.

The Returned airs on STUDIO on Foxtel Channel 132. The show premieres this Wednesday October 16th at 8pm, as part of their ‘Great at 8’ time slot.