EU narrative interview

Parlement, the Interview

parlement tv series

With Europe Day approaching and no way to celebrate it in person, we decided to binge-watch the TV series Parlement, a political comedy set in the European Parliament and available for free in France (but geoblocked, ironically) and for money in Belgium (believe it or not). We had some EU-talk with one of its authors, Maxime Calligaro, who also has experience in working for the EU Institutions.

A story set in the EU-bubble… It’s a topic we usually discuss after a couple of beers in Plux, but we magically forget about it as soon as we leave the table. Who had the idea?

The idea actually came from Noé Debré, a French screenwriter from Strasbourg. He grew up with the European Parliament’s building in his sight and he’s always been convinced that it would be a fantastic arena for a show. Its complexity is a formidable material for comedy: lots of different people, many different languages, plenty of misunderstandings…

Noé often jokes that if he had he been born in Frankfurt he’d probably have written a show about the ECB. We’re all very happy he grew up in Alsace!

When did you start writing it?

Noé started the project about six or seven years ago. But for all sorts of reasons it never saw the light of the day. Which was surprising to me at first. Noé was awarded plenty of gongs, including a Palme d’Or. He’s written for the best directors and collaborated with HBO. But the idea of a show about the EU was a deterrent for the channels.  

Persuading a network to invest money in a series about the European Parliament must be quite hard. What was their main concern?

Well, the rule number one of screenwriting is “drama is conflict, conflict is drama”. Without conflicts you don’t have action and without action there is no story. The EU is a machine designed to produce compromise and there is no clear battle between Left and Right, Republicans against Democrats. Europe always worked with a big coalition of parties muddling through by way of consensus. Lines aren’t clearly drawn.

TV channels couldn’t see the potential the EU holds when it comes to storytelling. It was our job to bring that up to the surface. 

And how did you manage that?

The Greek crisis, Brexit, Orban and Salvini also “helped” in a way. Macron too. The EU has become more dramatic. Conflicts exist underneath, even if very few people are aware of that; you just have to know what’s happening behind the scenes, in the corridors of Brussels.

Knowing the stress involved in organizing even the simplest meeting, I would say that the series is maybe a bit too much Auberge Espagnole and not enough House of Cards. A bit of drama was missing. 

The EU is a very fertile ground for all sorts of genres — thriller, rom com, you name it. We went for a political satire because we’re fans of the genre. Noé is an avid watcher of Armando Iannuci, the creator of Veep, The Thick of It and In the Loop. My political education was done with episodes of Yes, Minister. I guess we write things we like to watch. But the good news is: the European House of Cards is there to be written. It just needs to be put on the page. 

In the series you present a not-so-flattering view of EU politics: weak, ignorant and useless Parliamentarians (Michel, Sharon); merciless lobbyists (Guido) and ruthless political advisors (Ingeborg, Maurice). Is it really that bad?

There are plenty of positive characters too. Cornelius, the work-aholic MEP who helps Samy get his amendment through the plenary. Eamon, the watchful civil servant. Rose, the competent English assistant. 

The point was not to glorify the EU or criticise it. The goal was to show that EU institutions are made of flesh. Eurocrats aren’t faceless. They have hopes, fears, doubts. That’s what we tried to put in the show. And even though the tone of the show  is very cheeky, verging on satire, we’re never nasty with our characters. They all have redeeming features. They all have a part of tenderness.  

Samy, at the beginning of the series, seems quite lost and not particularly aware of EU procedures. Did you have that “What am I doing here?” moment when you entered the institutions for the first time?

Of course and I still feel that weird sensation of being the new kid in a new school when I start a new job. Noé chose to make poor Samy completely unaware of the EU complexity, because it’s funnier and people can relate to that. Fun fact : Xavier Lacaille, the actor impersonating Samy, studied European Law so he perfectly knew what was going on.

And yet in the end the young assistants manage to change something. Can we see a glimpse of optimism towards the end?

Well, Samy and his friends do not exactly save the world. There is the crushing dialogue at the end where [spoiler alert] one civil servant explains that, after all their efforts, Samy and his crew only managed to get a Parliament’s position. It’s only the first step. It then needs to be negotiated with diplomats in the Council. Then voted by Parliament again. And Council. And the wheels keep on turning.

In a bigger scale, it seems a very similar process to any institutions-related work. Is it the same for writing?

Definitively, writing a TV series is very much like negotiating a directive. It starts with a bunch of people meeting to draft a great text — the screenwriters in the case of a TV series, Commission officials in the case of a directive. They spend weeks on it, they research, they draft. Finally they feel their text is perfect, balanced, beautiful. 

Then the ball moves to the paymasters: in film-making that means the producers, in the EU that means the Council. The authors hear that their text is great but that there is no budget for everything and the wider public isn’t ready for it. The proposal is brutally amended. 

Then the text goes to the film directors, who are the equivalent of MEPs: they have ideological preconceptions and they might want to add flavour to the text. At this stage the scenarists are very much like the Commission: they’re in the middle, trying to save their original ideas. 

What about the implementation phase?

Oh, the screenplay goes to the actors in the same way a directive is implemented by national administrations. In that moment, anything can happen. Some will implement the text properly, others will just do what they want. In the end, both in law- and film-making you spend a lot of time working on something that will ultimately be criticized by anyone who feels like it on Twitter. 

A scene I really liked is Ingeborg’s monologue in which you captured all the contradictions of working for the European Union: the feeling that the project is too ambitious, the limits of representative democracy and the consequent urge to find shortcuts to get things done. How did you come up with that?

That scene is an homage to one of Spike Lee’s movies, 25th hour. In one scene Edward Norton, a New York drug dealer, goes on into a rant about the different communities living in New York. He describes the communities through their worst attributes but all put together this is a love letter to New York City and its diversity. Noé always wanted to replicate that with the EU.

Ingeborg’s monologue is a tribute to Spike Lee’s 25th Hour (2002)

And yet, in the politically-correct world of public TV, you managed to get such unsettling scene approved.

It was not easy, it almost got the chop. It went up to the very top of the TV channel’s hierarchy. In the end the scene was approved but we were forced to cover “Bunga bunga” and “fuck the citizens” with beeps.

When I first saw the scene edited with the music and the archive footage I felt it was too unsettling. But I think it’s important to put the finger where it hurts; ultimately this is what you expect from a good film or a good book: to be moved. 

Many scenes were filmed in the Committee of Regions. Was it too hard to get the permission from the Parliament? 

Very. Parlement is a political comedy and the EP administration didn’t think it’d do the institution much good, some some MEPs were easier to persuade: they feel that the EU didn’t conquer people’s imagination and that’s why most of what happens in Brussels is ignored.

We were literally living Samy’s excruciating battle, trying to convince functionaries, politicians and assistants to support us. Funnily enough, that cumbersome process sort of fed into the story lines of the show

Ultimately the EP administration greenlighted the project and we were granted permissions to film in Strasbourg and at the Committee of the Regions. They understood that Noé was a europhile with good intentions and probably thought it was worth the risk. 

And in the end they were satisfied?

We received very positive feedback so far. Critiques were surprised that the EU can be such a fun place. We knew that, DG MEME knew that, Berlaymonster knew that. Now the public knows that too.

And once you got the permission, how long did it take to film the series? 

Less than 40 days, which is very tight. There were barely any rehearsals. It is a relatively low budget show. But the directors, Emilie Noblet and Jérémie Sein, dressed it up superbly. I feel the music also adds an identity to the show. 

How did the actors prepare for their bureaucratic roles?

They came to visit the European Parliament to better understand their characters. They were immensely impressed by the building, its architecture, the atmosphere, the people, the brouhaha in 24 official languages. You tend to forget how amazing the place is when you’ve been working in it for a long time.

Main titles in yellow and caps lock: low on budget or minimalist choice?

Minimalist choice. Arial and Calibri cost about the same and caps lock are for free. 

Last but not the least, can we expect a second season?

Yes. The network is talking about it. Noé is thinking about it. His feeling is that we should get out of the Parliament a bit and explore other parts of the EU ecosystem — the Commission, the Council, an EU summit maybe. We’ll have to inquire. Plenty of stories to tell there too I’m sure. 

4 replies on “Parlement, the Interview”

Super série. Des amis ne connaissant pas les institutions UE m’ont demandé sérieusement si c’était réaliste. Ce sera le boulot du Parlement de savoir expliquer que c’est une satire et non la réelle institution.

Incroyable that we cannot view it in Brussels, after all we co-fiinanced it!!
Développé avec le soutien du programme Europe Creative – MEDIA de l’Union européenne

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