The Returned: Fabrice Gobert and Caroline Benjo interview

We chat to The Returned’s director and producer about zombies, French fantasy TV, genre, style, Mogwai, and more…

“No tradition, status: non-existent” is the unequivocal reply from film and television producer Caroline Benjo when I ask her about the status of fantasy and sci-fi television in France. “A bit of Franju in the seventies perhaps, with L’Homme Sans Visage…”. Writer and director Fabrice Gobert agrees, “It’s not a very developed genre in French television. Perhaps it’s a question of culture”.

That culture is changing, chiefly thanks to Benjo and Gobert, the producer and director of Canal Plus’ Les Revenants, which arrives on Channel 4 this weekend as The Returned.

A supernatural series about people coming back from the dead that’s part emotional drama, part fantasy, and part crime thriller, The Returned met with critical acclaim in France last year and is set to repeat that success in the UK and elsewhere.

By no means a zombie series in the vein of The Walking Dead, how would Benjo and Gobert describe The Returned’s genre? Magic realism? “A fantastic soap” says Benjo. “I like both of those descriptions,” agrees Gobert, “it’s definitely a series in which fantastic things happen rather than a fantasy series strictly speaking”.

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If The Returned has no predecessors in French television, its peers are to be found elsewhere. Benjo sees parallels between her show and BBC Three’s sensitive zombie drama In the Flesh. “What Dominic Mitchell does with his zombies in In the Flesh is quite comparable.” Benjo tells me, “He twists the genre, and makes it very British with a strong artistic and personal angle. Nothing is American in his show, and nothing is in ours either, even though everybody knows that zombies are quintessentially North American. The Returned, like In the Flesh is entirely an auteur’s vision”.

UK audiences this Sunday shouldn’t tune in to The Returned expecting George Romero-style gore. “Personally, I really like Romero’s films”, says Gobert “but they’re definitely very different from our series. The figure of the zombie is mentioned in ours, but by the characters themselves. The resurrection of Christ is also brought up. Those are our characters’ only two reference points in terms of the dead returning: Jesus and zombies!”

Despite French TV not being a breeding ground for the supernatural genre, Benjo and co-producer Carole Scotta, with whom she owns production company Haut et Court, didn’t struggle to win the support of Canal Plus for The Returned. “It was easy”, Benjo says, “Canal Plus knew they needed to compete with strong storytelling coming from the US and other countries with their own series”.

Benjo is the first to admit that French television has lagged behind the US in terms of quality drama. In the past, she’s bemoaned the lack of French equivalents to the likes of Six Feet Under or The West Wing. According to her, it was a case of producers and broadcasters underestimating the TV audience’s thirst for something new. “You have to bring something that’s never been done before, which means you have to be a little brave because it’s very risky. Canal Plus and ARTE are the ones who understood that, finally.”

Did it also, in a country that holds ‘le septième art’ of cinema in such high esteem, have something to do with television being historically regarded as a dirty word by filmmakers? “It was the case for a long time but less and less now, because they see what is happening elsewhere” says Benjo.

Gobert, a television director whose cinematic debut, 2010’s Simon Werner A Disparu, not only earned him this gig, but also a nomination in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard category, agrees that moving between the two is easier now. “People’s choices are guided by the nature of the project, not the medium itself. The crew and actors who worked on The Returned made the transition between television and cinema without any snobbery.” Benjo closes the discussion with an argument we hear frequently in this golden age of TV drama, “Television is the new cinema”.

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According to Gobert, what sets The Returned apart from other zombie stories is its intimate focus. “There isn’t a mass uprising,” he tells me, “The Revenants’ return isn’t experienced collectively, instead we follow the journeys of just a few people. I was interested in imagining what normal people would do faced with a sudden burst of miracle in their lives. Some of them believe it, some don’t want to believe it, some think it’s not going to last… Everyone reacts differently.”

The Returned’s dead are individuals then, not a marauding mass. They’re not intended, as zombies so often are, as an allegory for something else? Absolutely not, says Benjo, in fact, that was part of the producer’s motivation for revisiting her work on the 2004 film on which The Returned is very loosely based. “The director, Robin Campillo, didn’t want to push the concept far enough. He wasn’t as interested as we were in playing with the genre. For him, the dead coming back was used as a social and political metaphor. We didn’t want to use the dead for that,” Benjo continues, “though of course, at an intimate level they embody our fear of death and the brutal mystery of a beloved’s sudden disappearance from our day-to-day life. It works at a much deeper level.”

Benjo is understandably evasive on the question of whether audiences will have been given a definitive explanation for why the dead come back at the end of series one, replying with an enigmatic, “They will find the explanation they need, to keep wanting more of the dead to come back!”.

One level The Returned certainly works on is the visual. Gobert, his director of photography Patrick Blossier, and first assistant director Frédéric Goupil, collaborated with the producers to create its eerie, beautifully lit world. A chief influence in terms of style was American photographer Gregory Crewdson, who, Gobert tells me, “has a very singular way of making ordinary urban landscapes seem strange by playing with the frame and lighting.” Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In was also a visual influence, Gobert explains, “a fantasy thriller that magnificently privileges atmosphere and what’s outside of the frame over using special effects or frenetic editing”. Anything else? “The Shining and Twin Peaks were also references of course… but not just for me I think! They’re such masterpieces.”

The key to The Returned’s particular look, says Gobert, was preparation, and acting quickly. “The most complicated thing was being ready to film at the right moment ‘entre chien et loup’ (literally: between dog and wolf, describing the menacing window of half-light between day and night). We practised beforehand and organised the day so we could shoot exactly when the sun was just beginning to disappear. On average, we had about ten minutes to get the shot”. Benjo recalls, “Each of the ‘Crewdson-like’ establishing shots took a long time to make, but we knew we had to put the emphasis on those shots to create this imaginary world from scratch.”

The end result, as you’ll see this Sunday, is well worth the effort. Adding to the atmosphere of those beautifully composed shots is a score by Scottish post-rock band Mogwai, a soundtrack that’s already exhausted my stock of synonyms for ‘wiggy and atmospheric’.  Gobert had previously collaborated with Sonic Youth on his cinematic debut, so when a score was needed for The Returned, knew to look outside the obvious.

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“I really liked Mogwai’s work”, he tells me, “specifically their Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait soundtrack. We didn’t know them beforehand so we went through their record label. I sent them a presentation about the project and they were interested. I spoke to them via Skype – in halting English – and I insisted on the idea that I wanted them to have a free approach to the work. I spoke to them about my references in terms of musical soundtracks: Louis Malle’s 1958 film Elevator to the Gallows and Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 Dead Man. In these two films, Miles Davis and Neil Young made music unlike the music you’d usually hear in a thriller or a western. Their scores were so strong that they became like real characters in the plot. I wanted to do the same thing with The Returned.”

Mogwai composed the majority of the score after reading the scripts for the first two episodes. As such, it’s hard to underestimate their influence on the final series. Benjo remembers, “It was very inspiring to have them compose some of the score before shooting. We were able to use it on set to create the atmosphere, and sometimes even calculate the length of shots.”

As you’d imagine, Channel 4 aren’t the only ones who’ve cottoned on to the fact that The Returned is something special. At the time of writing, Haut et Court has sold the English-language adaptation rights to Paul Abbott’s UK production company, and it’s been snapped up by countless other territories. (Just for the record, ABC’s new pilot, Resurrection, may share a remarkably similar premise, but it’s apparently an adaptation of a soon-to-be-released novel by Jason Mott, and not of the original French show.)

Asked how close the UK adaptation will be to the original, Benjo wasn’t able to answer. “Paul Abbott is remaking it, you should ask him those questions.” Gobert too, says there are no plans for him to participate or consult in the foreign adaptations. “That’s the best way I think”.

How about series two? Will there be a third, or fourth? “Can’t really answer that yet” says Benjo. “We’re in the writing process for the second series, and shooting at the beginning of 2014”. How is Gobert finding writing series two? “We’re very much enjoying it, and I hope that comes across…”.

Does Benjo think non-French audiences will have any trouble finding a way in to the series? “The story in itself is universal enough to work quite well in other cultures and languages. If your themes are universal enough, you don’t have to be afraid to be local. On the contrary, audiences can be curious to see what French culture brings to it. I tested its international appeal with my British, American and Canadian friends, and their reaction has been tremendous, so I have strong hope it will be well-received.”

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Based on what we’ve seen, you can put money on it.

Eight-part series The Returned starts on Sunday the 9th of June at 9pm on Channel 4. Read our spoiler-free review of episode one, here.

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