Matthieu Frances, writer and director of Public Enemy, tells TV Drama about the show’s international appeal and working in today’s increasingly globalized television landscape.
The Belgian drama Public Enemy made its North American debut on Sundance Now last week, having been licensed to the streaming service by Banijay Rights. The thriller, produced by Entre Chien et Loup and Playtime Films for the Belgian pubcaster RTBF, was the winner of the Coup de Coeur Award at the inaugural MIPDrama Screenings in 2016.
TV DRAMA: How did Public Enemy come about?
FRANCES: In Belgium, cinema and TV are funded by public money. The public fund [Wallonia-Brussels Federation] and the public broadcaster RTBF created a TV-series fund and had a contest in Belgium [for local series]. There were more than 150 pitches, and they selected two of them; we were among the two. They decided to develop and produce The Break and Public Enemy.
TV DRAMA: Set up the series for our readers. What did you draw from to craft the story?
FRANCES: It’s a ten-part murder mystery about the most hated man in the country. His name is Guy Béranger, and he was in prison for the last 20 years for the murder of five children. He has been released on parole and is sheltered by a community of monks in a monastery. He is under the surveillance of a young female police officer, Chloé Muller, who is specialized in cases of missing children. She believes that he cannot be trusted and that he will kill again. By the time that Béranger arrives in the small village, the townspeople are waiting for him with rocks, bottles and all the hatred that you can imagine. Just when things are settling down, a little girl goes missing from the village.
There is an infamous criminal, Marc Dutroux, who is still the most hated man in Belgium. Three or four years ago, his wife—Michelle Martin, who was also his accomplice—was released on parole and is being sheltered by a nun community in a convent. We all watched it on TV and saw the reactions from the villagers. We were struck by it. We started to ask ourselves about what happens next and look at the boundaries of our existence.
TV DRAMA: How did it feel to win the first-ever MIPDrama Screenings, and what do you think appealed to the judges about the show?
FRANCES: It was a surprise actually because it was my first time writing or directing a TV show! I was just glad to be selected to be there. Winning was amazing. Perhaps the jury liked that we took the most difficult story of our country and tried to put it on screen. [Winning the Screenings] has really helped us. Starting with Cannes, there was a lot of international interest for the show.
TV DRAMA: Do you see the business of drama becoming more globalized?
FRANCES: We couldn’t have imagined this kind of [international reach for a Belgian French-language show] even five years ago. It’s a big opportunity for European shows to be broadcast in their own languages. With the appearance of Netflix and other SVODs out there, there is another way of writing shows now as well. Writers are being freed from ad breaks and all those kinds of unnatural breaks in the stories. We are more free to tell the story the way it should be told, like the way a novel does.
TV DRAMA: Belgium is putting out some great scripted series nowadays. What do you think has contributed to this?
FRANCES: Belgium is divided into two regions, really. The Flemish part is more industrialized than the French part. The Flemish part has five TV broadcasters, for example. In the French part, we just have one: the public network. When my grandmother was alive, she was watching the public network! It’s not easy when you’re 35 years old and are pitching stories like this one for the public network to accept it. With The Break and Public Enemy, something happened in the French market here. Everyone is writing TV shows, and I’m very glad about that! My generation was set with U.S. and U.K. TV shows—we loved watching them—but maybe now we want to have shows of our own.
TV DRAMA: What does a series need to have in order for it to transcend language barriers and appeal to international audiences?
FRANCES: You need to have strong, sympathetic characters—people that you love to live with every week, people you care about. I’m a strong believer that local is universal. If you have something that is happening in a small town or village, that feels real for the audience, that makes a difference too.
TV DRAMA: Any trends you’re seeing in the international drama business at present?
FRANCES: I am a bit surprised to watch shows like The OA, for example, which don’t have a writing structure like we used to have to have. It’s really refreshing—and also a little disturbing! Sometimes you will have an episode of 35 minutes, then the next one is an hour. And why not! Everyone is binge-watching now. The way that we watch shows has changed.