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Walter Presents’ Walter Iuzzolino

Walter Iuzzolino has always been fascinated by stories, whether in novels, plays, movies or TV dramas. He studied literature at university, went to film school and was a script reader. He later became a commissioning editor at Channel 4 before co-founding the streaming service Walter Presents in 2015, which offers non-English-language drama. He and his partners Jo McGrath and Jason Thorp set up the production company Eagle Eye Drama in 2019. Iuzzolino was awarded the TV Drama Pioneer Award in recognition of his contributions to the drama genre and for elevating the status of international scripted series and the role of curated SVOD services. He talks to TV Drama about his continued appreciation of storytelling, talent and voices from around the world.

***Image***TV DRAMA: What have you learned about story and structure?
IUZZOLINO: My passion for story and structure started at university because there’s nothing better than Henry James, Charles Dickens, George Eliot and Wilkie Collins, all those Victorian or late 19th-century writers who worked quite often in serialized mediums. Quite a few of them started producing novels that first came out as weekly installments in a popular magazine like Household Words. Then, at the end of the year, the novel would come out as an individual book. What has always been fascinating about that is that it’s a form of internalized structure. And it’s what quite a lot of serial drama nowadays does with a box set. They were brilliant chapters that you needed to enjoy in their own right. But they also were built around the cliffhanger ending every week so that you would be propelled into following the narrative progress forward.

When I finished university, I worked for a couple of years as a translator of Henry James. I used to translate some of his theater plays into Italian that had not been previously published. Being so close to the text of writers that write with a serialized bent was incredibly useful and interesting for me. It’s what made me ultimately interested in television drama. When I moved to London after university, my first job was as a script reader. I used to read one, sometimes two scripts a day. Being faced with that amount of storytelling six or seven days a week means that after a bit, you learn those rules. There are magnificent university courses about structuring, storytelling and creative writing and all are fabulously useful, but nothing better prepares you for life in television than being immersed in it from the word “go.” When you read so many scripts, you start to rediscover that lovely three-act structure—beginning, middle and end—which leads back to Greek tragedies. You start to realize that there are scripts that you instinctively love and that you’ll want to read the next page, and it becomes a page-turner experience. And there are those that sag, and you immediately recognize a scene that’s a bit too long or one where the emotion doesn’t quite match the narrative structure. What I’ve learned is that emotion comes after structure. It’s easy when you’re young to be transported by feeling an emotion and therefore be interested in a story because you think it’s going to express something exciting and meaningful. But ultimately, that something exciting or meaningful will not be expressed if there isn’t a tight narrative structure to underpin it. The tightness of structure is what will propel viewers to consume a piece of television or, indeed, a piece of cinema. And if that structure is not interrogated and chiseled enough, the piece can easily become self-indulgent, and the message is lost. So what I’ve learned is that structure is everything.

TV DRAMA: Are good elements of structure universal regardless of the culture or the country where the story comes from? Or do different cultures render story differently?
IUZZOLINO: Great structure is great structure. If you think about it from fairy tales, the Brothers Grimm, Cinderella, Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood, it’s what we consume from childhood. Everything needs a super tight structure. However, when it comes to different cultures in different countries, there are nuances to the argument. English and American storytelling are particularly tight when it comes to structure. There’s such a key, domino sense of structure where every cause has an effect and vice versa. There’s something quite beautiful and elegant about admiring the precision of the structure for structure’s sake. However, having said that, it is true that European storytelling, in particular, takes a greater degree of liberty when it comes to painting the emotion, and as a European, I can’t help but love that. I think that one absolutely needs a good structure, and without that, you’re going nowhere. However, it is sometimes exciting to break with form, and mostly European storytellers break with form and open up the structure to allow for more emotion to breathe in a scene that you think should be tighter. I think every great author, wherever they are in the world, learns to use structure and then to take it apart and throw it away where it doesn’t serve the purpose they want it to serve.

TV DRAMA: What is it about a story that lends itself to be enjoyed by people from many different cultures or countries?
IUZZOLINO: I have two answers to that question. On the one hand, and this is true of everything that I buy and acquire and produce, the universality of the theme does help, for sure. But in a way, every story is about human beings and that experience of life, death, passion, tragedy, sadness, etc. But I’ve learned with the passing of years and the experience of Walter Presents that sometimes it’s the specificity of a story that makes it universal. I remember that after university, I went to film school here in London. And it was quite the prescriptive structure of: this is how you tell a story and where you tell the story. I’ve learned that’s not often the case. When I buy a Sicilian drama, for instance, it’s peculiarly Sicilian. It takes its time. It talks about themes that are very peculiar to the country—Catholicism, family and criminality—in a way that isn’t necessarily relevant in Belgium or Germany or the Scandinavian countries. However, by virtue of being very true to itself, a Sicilian story can become a great global story. And I’ve learned that the overall grammar and universality of storytelling do matter because, in the end, themes have to [resonate] for a viewer. However, chances are that a story will resonate when it’s specific to its culture because as human beings, in the same way that you learn to appreciate a great Italian dish or a great French piece of pastry or a great Scandinavian bread, you the consumer and viewer know when you are watching and consuming something of excellence. And you will respond to that excellence if you know it’s not being prepackaged; if you know that it comes from a good place, narratively and esthetically and thematically. The industry tends to use the catchphrases of the time, but it is true that hyperlocal nowadays can be very good. You know it because viewers have enormous amounts of choice. And going very specific with the cultural DNA of what you’re watching tends to help with a global audience.

TV DRAMA: You had been working in factual programming, and then you decided to dive into non-English-language scripted drama. How did that come about, and what led to the creation of Walter Presents?
IUZZOLINO: I really enjoyed my stint in factual. It was all about brand creation and storytelling in a different space because you respond to life as it is. So, [whether] a documentary or even a Bear Grylls-type program, it’s about a human being cast in an extreme set of circumstances. And with a camera and as a producer, you are following that and telling that story in the most coherent way possible.

However, drama had always been in my blood because of my university background. What tipped me over the edge and made me launch Walter Presents was a real nostalgia for that. Because I am Italian, I come from a country where scripted drama is still largely dubbed. There are incredible actors and great traditions all over Germany and France and Italy of great actors that are dubbing actors. I’m not in any way disparaging the great work they do. But as a viewer, I become very attached to the genuine voice of the actor and the performance. And marrying that voice to the gesture for me is something that is very difficult to replicate. But the advantage of growing up in a dubbing country is that I was spoiled because I was used to a lot of international drama as a viewer. On television in Italy, on a RAI channel or a Mediaset channel, on a weekly basis, you would get the French show, the German show, the American show, and you would never judge. Language was never a barrier to the appreciation of content because everything [was in] Italian. Therefore, you were able to watch and appreciate textures, paces and tonal bits of storytelling that were very different from one another. When I moved to London 25 years ago, I was quite struck by the absence of that variety. Everything at the time was very Anglo-American. Don’t get me wrong, Anglo-American drama is fantastic. But I was missing the Italian bit and the French bit and the German bit. So it was trying to go back to my heritage and what I used to feast on.

At the time, to give them the credit they completely deserve, the BBC had started to experiment with international drama. When the company I was working with was sold to an American group, I was left with the choice of: Do I stay for another five-plus years or do I take the leap and jump? By then, I had enough savings to last six to nine months, which was a very privileged position to be in, and I was thinking, if I don’t do it now, will I have the courage to do it a few years down the line? I decided to do it because I was very much inspired by the work the BBC was doing. BBC Four, by then, had launched a wonderful French series called Spiral, Engrenages in French, which remains a seminal show from Canal+. I remember, in the beginning, it was a bit of a cult hit. The audience was fairly small, 200,000 to 300,000 viewers, I think. Then it steadily grew and found its groove around 500,000. I remember thinking, wow, half a million people in the U.K. regularly tune into a French show, which is quite baroque, dark and fairly convoluted, slightly extreme in its own way. But if they do that week in, week out, then there is an audience that could embrace international drama. It started with Spiral and followed with The Killing, The Bridge and Borgen. And I thought, that’s it. The audience is there. We just need to corral them to a place that is as rich and diverse and exciting as it could be. At the time in the U.K., international drama was largely Scandi drama. Everybody just used The Killing, The Bridge and Borgen as the one parameter by which you judge international subtitled drama. I knew, because I was Italian, that there was a lot more from France, Italy, Germany, etc. I wanted to explore that. That’s what made me think, let’s jump into it.

TV DRAMA: You have also set up Eagle Eye Drama. How did that come about, and what opportunities did you see in the market?
IUZZOLINO: That came about for two reasons. First, it was me being exposed to all these wonderful stories from all over the world. The script reader in me was titillated again, thinking, wow, that’s a beautiful Flemish show, but there’s something in that story that could make it fantastic in the U.K., for example. So first, it was a sense of scouting great formatted storytelling that I thought could lend itself very well to international adaptation. But there’s another reason, which is maybe the more powerful motivation. Through Walter Presents, I had learned to fall in love with wonderful creatives that were operating all over Europe and all over the world. They were outside the Anglo-American system. I remember at the time speaking to lots of commissioners, heads of channels, friends and colleagues in the business, and they were all lamenting the fact that everybody was super busy, and the industry was so flourishing that there was no talent around. Everybody was saying, Oh, gosh, we have to wait four years for that writer, five years for that director, and you can’t get a DOP in town. Everybody’s busy on a million Apple, Netflix, Amazon, ITV and BBC projects. With this plethora of viewer choice came a lack of talent. I remember thinking, that’s not true. It’s that we’re just looking in the same small pool. But if we could look beyond the U.K. and U.S., there are so many extraordinary program makers that never got the opportunity to project their talent onto our world. Eagle Eye was born as a combination of knowing that there were great stories that merit adaptation. But more than that is the joy of bringing great new talent into the system. And I’m enormously proud. We’re only two and a half years in, and we now have four returnable big drama shows on our books that have launched and [done] incredibly well: Professor T and Hotel Portofino for ITV and Before We Die and Suspect for Channel 4. And we are working with such an extraordinary variety of people.

About Anna Carugati

Anna Carugati is the group editorial director of World Screen.


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