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In depth: The Last Panthers

panther2014576_001[2].jpgAct 1 Sky and StudioCanal are hoping for rich international pickings with starry new international drama series The Last Panthers, but receipts from sales of the show will come nowhere near the estimated US$500 million value put on the jewels that the titular gang stole through their high-profile career.

The work of French investigative journalist Jérôme Pierrat is the cornerstone of the six-part drama. The European crime expert took his idea for a film about the Pink Panthers – a moniker Interpol bestowed upon a group of prolific diamond thieves – to Haut et Court, the French production company behind numerous features, and TV series such as Les Revenants.

Caroline Benjo, co-managing director of the Paris-based prodco says Pierrat’s initial idea was for a movie. A 2013 feature, Smash & Grab: The Story of the Pink Panthers, had committed some of the gang’s activities to film, but with years of primary research and interviews in hand, Pierrat offered the producers unrivalled insight.

Recalling the birth of the project four years ago, Benjo says she knew immediately that it should be a TV drama and not a movie. “We felt it was so international and multilayered it would work best as a series,” she says. “There are the jewellery heists and those entertainment aspects, but what we were really interested in was the hidden story of the Panthers that was inside Jérôme’s mind.”

Premium French network Canal+ soon came on board and Benjo, aware that this needed to be a coproduction, sought out a UK partner, with Warp Films joining the project.

The-Last-Panthers_MortonWarp and Haut et Court knew that as Jérôme was a journalist, he needed to be partnered with a TV writer: step forward Jack Thorne. Very much in-demand after his work on Skins and This is England, Thorne says he knew very quickly that he wanted the Panthers job.

“I was sent a document about Jérôme and his idea and thought it was an incredible story,” he says. “I pitched harder on this than anything I have ever done to impress everyone involved. I even wrote a full treatment in advance of meeting them.”

Canal+ has been in the big-ticket drama game for some years, while Sky, which subsequently took it for the UK, is newer to originals on this scale. Anne Mensah, Sky’s head of drama, was clear from the first meeting what the UK pay TV operator required from The Last Panthers, recalls Warp Films co-CEO Peter Carlton. “She told us it needs big stars, to move people to tears, and that we need to blow shit up,” he says.

In terms of stars, the producers duly delivered. Samantha Morton (Sweet and Lowdown, Minority Report) plays Naomi, the former soldier and insurance investigator and who works under Tom, played by John Hurt. Tahar Rahim (A Prophet) plays Khalil, a cop.

Casting the third lead, the Serbian Panther role of Milan, proved more challenging. “We said, ‘Let’s get the best actors from the different countries involved,’ but the main problem was Serbia, because there weren’t major stars to choose from,” says Carlton. “We ended up having to expand the casting process.”

Having “seen every man in their 20s to 40s in the country”, he says that the Balkan actors ended up giving everyone a run for their money. Goran Bogdan was ultimately brought on as Milan, in what looks like being a breakout role for the Croatian actor.

panther2012-The-Last-Panther---Photo-Nick-Wall[1].jpgAct 2 The real-life Panthers story offers more action than most Hollywood blockbusters, and The Last Panthers duly opens with a heist, in the southern French city of Marseille. As well as the opening set piece, there are other action sequences as the story unfolds (“We were conscious we didn’t want the budget to go in the first episode and have people standing around talking  for the rest of it,” says Carlton), but the series sets out to provide more than a straightforward crime/action offering.

The starting point is at the end of a decade of Pink Panthers raids, when the famed gang, which in reality has completed hundreds of daring heists, has gone off the radar. When the opening episode’s jewellery robbery, bearing all the hallmarks of the Panthers, goes wrong and a little girl is killed, it triggers a series of events across Europe that draw in the three main characters: an insurance loss-adjuster, a French-Algerian cop and a Serbian soldier-turned-jewel-thief. The episodes span numerous locations as the story touches on high finance, organised crime and politics in modern-day Europe. The show was filmed across Europe in 130-day shoot that took in locations including France, the UK, Bosnia and Serbia.

“Our thinking was, this is a thriller and a portrait of Europe,” says Warp’s Carlton. “Some of the best US TV feels ‘state of the nation’, and we wanted that on a European scale. We also said at the start that this couldn’t be a dry thriller. I knew Jack and that he had studied the politics of the EU, and that as a writer he is not scared of big emotion.”

The Pink Panthers are better known in France than the UK, and Thorne says he was largely unaware of their activities ahead of working on the series. The writer’s vision for it was built around two things: the work done by the insurance agents tracking the diamonds – effectively the money police – and Serbia, as a prism through which to see Europe and as the place that spawned this crack criminal gang.

Thorne speaks warmly of Pierrat, who took him to various European locations during research and writing phase of the show, including the notorious ‘Les Catalans’ housing estate in Marseille, where the team, having spent over a day negotiating their way in, had bottles thrown at them on the way out as rival gangs disagreed about their presence (Marseille replaced Paris as a key location as the writing team finessed the story).

The pair at the centre of that team, Thorne says, also had bust-ups as the worlds of reportage and drama writing collided. “The truth is important to Jérôme, and we did have some furious arguments, but I found that the truth can be freeing [as a writer],” he says, adding Thorne that working closely with Pierrat has altered his approach to writing. “It has changed the way I will work in a massive way, in terms of research and a constant search for authenticity,” he says.

One major shift from the initial treatment is from a historical to a present-day setting, although the series still goes back in time to delve into the stories of the characters. “We go back to explore how the characters got to be the people they are, and if the series has a theme, it is how history can define people and places,” says Thorne.

There are big action set-pieces, but another key element, Thorne says, is place: today’s Europe. “We wanted to tell the story of modern Europe,” he says. “The writing was being done as events in Greece happened. Everyone in the room was quite political, and as well as looking at the idea of ‘gangsters versus banksters’, the series is also about what we want Europe to be, and asks how we ended up where we are now.”

Carlton says that despite his and Benjo’s filmmaking experience, The Last Panthers was not made with feature film-sensibilities. “You could say it is a hybrid, in that it has one director (Johan Renck, who counts Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead among his credits) and a sense of global storytelling and mise-en-scène that comes from our background in film, but this has the rhythm of TV,” he says.

pantherMilan_765-F10.jpgAct 3 The show is the second Canal+ and Sky copro after The Tunnel. It bows on the French channel in early October and on the Sky Atlantic channel in the UK soon after. Quizzed by TBI on a recent industry panel about the three-language set-up of The Last Panthers, Sky’s Mensah noted there are actually seven used in total throughout the series. “Our Sky Atlantic viewers are very savvy drama viewers, and very happy to watch [partly] subtitled drama with authenticity at its heart,” she said.

Thorne has impressive drama credits, but The Last Panthers was the first time he has worked on a multi-language copro of this sort. The scripts were put together in English, but linguistic idiosyncrasies meant plenty of rewriting, he says. “When you translate English to French, the script becomes three pages longer,” he says. “When you translate it to Serbian it becomes three pages shorter.”

Haut et Court’s Benjo says the series was always going to be multilanguage to reflect the real, increasingly multicultural, world. In practice, this meant scripts had three columns, one for each of the core languages, so each actor could read the others’ lines. As a French producer, Benjo says she has no problem making a show in which the lead language is English, not least as it opens up the sales potential. “If you want to do this kind of storytelling, you need to open yourself to the world,” she  says.

As local drama increasingly wins favour among viewers over US fare, The Last Panthers achieves a local feel that will resonate in many of the territories in which it was filmed, which can only help the sales effort. Sky’s distribution arm, Sky Vision, and StudioCanal are co-distributing the series internationally. It will get a marketing boost at its international launch in Cannes by taking the MIPCOM World Premiere TV Screening slot on the Monday of the market.

“Just like the relationship between Haut et Court and Warp, the [co-distribution] is based on collaboration between the two teams; we might, for example, work together on some larger territories,” says Leona Connell, head of global sales at Sky Vision. “One of the great things about this series is its ambition. It is a modern crime thriller, but different to other shows out there.”

Big serialised drama works well for cable channels and SVOD services seeking defining series, but StudioCanal’s executive VP, sales and marketing, Katrina Neylon, says The Last Panthers could also work for free-to-air channels. “It definitely has a broad appeal, and [buyers can see] the quality is definitely there as it is for Sky and Canal+,” she says. “Being based in Europe means it is ‘international’ for the rest of the world.”

It is not she adds, tonally in the same place as a lot of Scandinavian drama. Peter Carlton agrees. “It is not dark and difficult,” he says. “A lot of [high-end] drama now is beautiful, but a little bit restrained, the programme makers do not let it all hang out emotionally. This is accessible and has heart.”