"To make a good TV show is as complex and as demanding on an artist as making a feature film is"
Industry Report: Television
Jeppe Gjervig Gram • Screenwriter, Danmarks Radio
by Valerio Caruso
- We headed to Série Series to interview Danish screenwriter Jeppe Gjervig Gram about his method of writing TV series, inspired by the way Hollywood studios work
We met up with Jeppe Gjervig Gram, the screenwriter behind Denmark’s popular crime thriller TV series Follow the Money, at Série Series, a summit dedicated to European TV series held in Fontainebleau, France.
Cineuropa: How did you come to using the current working method?
Jeppe Gjervig Gram: In the late 1990s, some people at Danmarks Radio (DR) felt that the drama at DR wasn’t working, so they sent some key people to Hollywood to meet up with Steven Bochco from NYPD Blue, one of the biggest American show runners ever. He took them around his set and let them talk to the professionals in his different departments. When they came home, they restructured the DR fiction completely. They started to work with writers’ rooms. Instead of having mainly director-driven series, they started to have writer-driven ones. So they started implementing a lot the things that Hollywood is doing at DR, just on a smaller scale.
Which are the main elements of the writers’ room? Can you share the main characteristics?
It’s a creative room where all the story work is done and it’s led by a head writer, with other writers, called episode writers, in the room. I work very closely with my episode writers, and we work very democratically in the writers’ room — a good idea must always win. The head writer works very closely with the producer too, and, together, we hire the director. The head writer also has a lot of contact with the director. Every time a new draft comes in, we will have meetings with the director, get notes from him, and explain things that he doesn’t get.
Has there been a generational break in Denmark, meaning that old screenwriters were not able to work within this methodology?
If there was, it was many years ago. In the late 1990s, the writers were not very strong. There weren’t a lot of writers who were living as writers. Mostly directors were writing themselves. That has been the greatest break, I think. There are probably still some older directors who feel that now writers are taking too much or something.
Does the broadcaster enter the creative aspect or do they let you decide?
At DR all my shows have been done in-house. The head of drama is very much the broadcaster. She’s my boss and she’s the only one I get executive notes from. Of course her bosses have some opinions, but they will talk with her, never with me directly. Because DR fiction is doing so well, I don’t think she gets a lot of trouble. Of course, if we had a show that had poor ratings, then it would probably spell trouble for her.
Do you write for a Danish or an international audience?
Of course we are aware that we have an international audience, but, for me, I only focus on the Danish one, simply because that’s difficult enough. We are expected to deliver an audience of around 1 million viewers even though we live in a country with only about 6 million people - and that is a lot. Luckily our show have more than 1.5 million viewers (totalling tv broadcast and streaming), so everybody is very happy. I believe if we make a good show for the Danish audience that’s also dealing with topics that are interesting internationally, then hopefully the show will travel.
Do you try to spread your working method in other countries? For instance, are you called to coach other screenwriters from France or Germany?
Every now and then I’m called, and I would love to work outside of Denmark at some point. I love to travel and there are so many stories that are regional that I would love to do. I could see myself working in a lot of different places, but at the moment, I have good conditions at DR and probably the greatest creative freedom I could have anywhere. If you have talent that have the right idea, and you give them the freedom to express that idea, then you will get good results. For me that’s the formula for success.
What are the ingredients necessary to make a good series?
You have to have been a writer on a show before. As an episode writer, you have to know how to “think TV”. It’s different from film. You also need a lot of freedom to be able to express the vision. And you need a system made for TV series. You have to set up the right surroundings. So for me, you have to have the writers’ room. You have to work at a place where the producers and the executives know what it’s like to make good TV series. And you must never think that it’s easier to do TV than feature films. To make a good TV show is at least as complex and as demanding on an artist as making a feature film is. You have to have people that really believe in TV.
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