SERIES MANIA 2023 Series Mania Forum
Antoine Vitkine • Screenwriter of Asma and The Salvatore Mundi Case
"There’s an expectation that series explore the real world through fiction"
- The French author chatted to us about his two series projects which have been selected for the Series Mania Forum’s Co-Pro Pitching Sessions
Antoine Vitkine has made an incredible debut in the world of international fiction series, given that the seasoned French documentary director is the author of two of the 15 series selected for the highly popular Co-Pro Pitching Sessions (news), which are taking place today at the Series Mania Forum, the professional sidebar of the Series Mania Festival (which kicked off on Friday in Lille – article).
Cineuropa: Where did you get the idea for Asma (8 x 52’ – produced by Nilaya Productions), your biopic project about Bachar el-Assad’s wife? Were you inspired by your documentary Bachar, moi ou le chaos?
Antoine Vitkine: The documentary saw me exploring the mysteries of the Assad family and I realised that Asma was quite unusual because she’s totally out of sync with the regime, the dictatorship, the brutality of war, because of her background: she was raised in England, she worked from a New York bank... In my mind, she’s a kind of bridge between our lives here and the reality of living under a dictatorship like the one in Syria; she helps us to understand. When I was looking for ideas for stories to explore through fiction, this one soon felt like the obvious choice, because it’s really novelistic and because what’s interesting happens behind closed doors. From that point on, our work was all about meeting Asma’s loved ones and people from the Assad clan, of whom there are quite a few, in order to write a pre-screenplay to prove that there was enough material for a fiction film. Because it’s a series based on a true story, so it did have to stay close to the truth. Direct witnesses helped me to develop a story which was as faithful as possible to the character, without making mistakes.
You don’t come from the world of fiction. How did you go about writing the film?
In quite an artisanal way. I threw myself into it with the carefree abandon of a novice, while obviously thinking about how to communicate things through fiction. But I didn’t ask myself too many questions. The aim was to fill in the missing layers, to start from what I knew in order to invent what I didn’t really know and what makes fiction, fiction; relations with her husband at a given point, for example, dialogues, etc. I wanted it to be as true to life as possible and I already had a certain number of striking scenes which I’d been told about from different viewpoints and which I put together and created dialogue for in chronological order. I added intimacy, which was trickier, based on deductions or information gleaned from witnesses. I was inspired by Narcos for its relationship with reality, which is pretty strong but also novelistic, and by another lesser-known series: The House of Sadam. I wanted to write the series on my own for as long as possible, because I find that if you work in too large a group too early on in the writing process, you run the risk of diluting what it is you want to say. Obviously, now - and this is key in the co-producers-broadcaster equation - we need to rework the writing with someone who has more experience with this kind of format. And the project also has what it takes to be an English language series.
The Salvatore Mundi Case (6 x 52’ – produced by Incognita and Wonder Films), which you’re also pitching here in the Series Mania Forum, is enjoying a different trajectory because you recently made the hit documentary Salvator Mundi, la stupéfiante affaire du dernier Vinci. Why did you decide to adapt it into a work of fiction?
I was the one who suggested it to the producers. Because I’d worked on it as a documentary, I could see the novelistic power of the subject and the possibility it offered to step behind closed doors once again in order to say what I hadn’t been able to say in the documentary. With this series, I immediately set to work with a co-screenwriter, Angela Soupe, in a more traditional way, on a tome. For those who don’t know it, it’s the story of what has now become the most expensive painting in the world, and which was bought for a very modest sum ten or so years ago. There are all kinds of greed, deception; a political thriller practically exploring an affair of state involving France and Saudi Arabia: it’s a revealing story about the world we live in and which revolves around money. The lives of all these characters who come into contact with this painting are transformed. It’s quite a polyphonic story, but there is a main character: a woman working for an auction house.
You’ve made upwards of twenty documentaries. Why this interest in fiction and series?
I don’t want to stop making documentaries because I’m a journalist at heart and it’s a genre which engages with reality and which allows for lightness but also complete mastery of the subject. I think it’s harder with fiction, where there’s a greater number of people involved. But I always think about narrative construction, about how we tell stories, and fiction is part of the same spectrum, so I wanted to explore this particular narrative approach. Why series? Firstly, it’s about adapting to a given market, but first and foremost, and this is why we like watching series, they allow us to drill down, into the subtleties and complexities of characters, to lend stories scale. Compromises will doubtless need to be made, because series have to speak to a wider audience, as well as being "entertaining", but the most successful series, in my eyes, are the ones that manage to reflect a certain level of complexity and to come as close as possible – especially fiction films about real life - to the events in question, with all the adaptations that obviously need to be made. A series like Chernobyl, for example, which tries not to compromise too much, even if there are a few storytelling effects, is a good example of this. And I think there’s an expectation that series explore the real world through fiction.
(Translated from French)
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