The Returned series 2: the delay, US remake, and answers

The Returned series 2 arrives on More4 in the UK tonight, Friday the 16th of October. We spoke to its creators and cast…

Fabrice Gobert, the French creator of supernatural drama The Returned, speaks good English. An inevitability of using a second language though, is the odd grammatical slip. One such slip made by Gobert at the press launch for The Returned series two is too perfect to let pass by. A pitfall of writing fantasy TV, Gobert said, is that “you can lost yourself”.

Add a capital letter to the ‘l’ word, and you can say that again.

During its enviably long run, Lost became both the high and low benchmark for atmospheric, existentially fraught TV dramas. Its early seasons gripped viewers, but its later runs frustrated many by failing to achieve the perfect ratio of mysteries to answers. That’s the tricky challenge The Returned is facing in series two. It needs to fill viewers in just enough not to frustrate us, but also keep us guessing and always wanting to know more. Put simply, it needs not to Lost itself.

We spoke to showrunner Fabrice Gobert, producer Jimmy Desmarais and actors Pierre Perrier and Jenna Thiam (Simon and Léna in the show) about what to expect in season two of the undead drama, cinematic influences, the now-defunct US remake, and most pressing of all, why fans have had to wait three long years for a second series to appear…

Ad – content continues below

The long delay between series one and two

Believe Fabrice Gobert, if it had been able to happen sooner, it would have. According to him, it was a question of breaking the story in precisely the right way. “It’s more complicated than a whodunit,” Gobert explained. “We had to take time to be sure of the stories we wanted to tell. It’s difficult. If it wasn’t difficult, we would have aired a year ago!”.

Actor Pierre Perrier, who plays Simon in The Returned, also stresses that the delay was down to the search for the right story. “Fabrice fought for the best of the story and not for production or commercial things. The first line was ‘don’t worry guys, if it’s taking more time, it’s for the sake of the series’. That was reassuring because Fabrice managed to make a success of the first season by fighting this way. I mean, there wasn’t any big fight but he kept his position strongly even when production didn’t agree with him.”

Were there production battles behind the scenes? “The main battle was with the scripts, the stories, the characters,” says Gobert. “It was the first time I worked in the fantasy genre, and you can lost yourself every day because there are very spectacular ideas that you can have that can lose you and take you in the wrong direction. You have to sometimes explore the direction to see if it’s good or not, and if it’s not, you have to try another way.”

It’s partly also to do with the French TV system. Gobert explains, “In France you have to write every script before shooting, so you can’t make ten episodes every year because you have six months of writing if you’re very, very fast. Six months of shooting and three or four months of post-production, so there are few series in France who can get that rhythm.

Unlike in the UK and US, it’s common for French series to recur every two years. “We are a bit late,” Gobert says, “I don’t know how in the United States or in England people do it so fast because we worked a lot, we didn’t take holidays. After we finished series one we immediately started to write season two.”

Neither does France have the writers’ room tradition. “I tried to write with a lot of writers in The Returned,” says Gobert, “and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t work, but obviously, it’s not the case that because there are four writers you go four times faster.”

Ad – content continues below

It was also, Gobert suggests with some humility, a matter of relative inexperience. “All the very good, impressive American showrunners that we know—and I think it’s the same thing in England—have worked before. Before they became showrunner they worked as screenwriters, or as screenwriting interns in good series. For example, Vince Gilligan worked a lot on The X-Files, Matthew Weiner worked on The Sopranos, etc., etc. but all the writers of The Returned were beginners. Maybe in ten years we can make a better series faster, I hope!”

All of that should be reassuring to The Returned’s audience, not that it’s made the wait any more bearable. As a TV fan, Gobert understands our pain. “I would be very frustrated if Game Of Thrones stopped for three years!”

What do we know about series two?

First of all, it’s set six months after the battle lines were drawn between the living and the dead at the close of series one. We know that Adèle is pregnant with Simon’s child. “You can see that it isolates him a little bit because there is something in between,” says Pierre Perrier of his character, “It’s very hard [for Simon] to choose a side, because you have a baby which is basically both sides, so he can’t choose.”

“At the end of season one” Perrier continues, “my character is connected to the living through his wife but his baby is going to be a hybrid in season two, so obviously for him, he’s on the line between the two. So he’s double-sided in season two because he’s part of the dead and they’re living together but he also has a foot in life with the baby.”

Jenna Thiam, who plays twin Léna, expands on Perrier’s words. “Season one opens and nobody knows what they want. We don’t know how to react, we don’t know what we think about it, we’re just thrown into something we don’t want. Then season two opens and what I think is very gripping about the whole thing is that each character really knows what they want. Adèle doesn’t want the child, I want to find my sister, Simon wants to go get the child. Everything’s really clear. You’ll see all the obstacles that are in the way of each of our objectives.”

Gobert agrees, “In season one I think characters react, in season two they act […] They accept that they live in a town which is almost empty, with strange things happening and they are ready to fight with the fantastic in a way.”

Ad – content continues below

Producer Desmarais continues, “The first season was really on an intimate level, all the characters were confronted with the situation on their own, in their own family cell. In the second season there is a broadening because more people are aware of what has happened and there is a more collective dimension, but it’s still the same treatment of the genre and still the same approach and still the same question of how do we live together, can we live together, the dead and the living?”

“What’s for sure,” says Perrier, “is it’s getting higher and higher and higher. The pressure is rising and the story is evolving a lot”.

How will series two explain why child actors Swann Nambotin and Yara Pilartz, who play undead Victor and Camille, have aged?

“The storytelling takes it into account. You’ll see,” says Gobert. “That was one of the questions I didn’t ask myself when I wrote and shot season one, it didn’t occur to me that children grow up! For the next series I will think about it a bit. That’s experience.

“I think in Lost they had the same problem with Walt. What’s funny is that I read some commentaries on the internet and some people are saying ‘oh, dead people can’t grow’, and I asked myself ‘why?’ Because there are no examples in life, maybe they can grow.”

The now-cancelled US remake

A&E’s remake of The Returned, led by Lost’s Carlton Cuse, aired this summer in the US and was promptly cancelled. “They made a remake in America,” Perrier explained at the launch, jokily adding “that’s stopping now because they couldn’t do as it as good as we did”.

Gobert played no part in the US remake. “They asked me if I wanted to participate but I couldn’t because I was writing season two. I met Carlton Cuse once, we had a little conversation about where it was going and about Lost [laughs]. But I didn’t watch it. I tried to, but it’s very difficult to appreciate it because in the first episode at least, they were very loyal to the original.”

Ad – content continues below

“It’s so close, it’s like a literal remake” adds Desmarais. “It was the same shots,” agrees Perrier, “but bad.” Thiam has no warmer feelings about the show. “It’s weird… there’s no artistic movement behind it, it’s just like ‘oh, this was a big hit…’ “Let’s copy it!” jumps in Perrier.

Gobert feels that the emptiness of the cultural references were one of the things that made the US remake so uncanny. “I think Les Revenants is interesting because it’s French. It refers to American movies, to American fiction, for example the diner, the Lake Pub, they are real places, we didn’t invent them, it’s a real location near Annecy but it refers to American culture for us. In the American remake, when they shoot a diner, it’s not strange, it’s just very ordinary so it doesn’t have the same impact. It can’t be translated in an American way.”

How ‘French’ is The Returned?

That’s not to say, according to Thiam, that The Returned is an intrinsically French show, however much its combination of existentialism, sex and cinematic ideas might seem so to a UK audience. “I don’t think there’s anything really French about it,” she says, “It’s just a work of art, it’s not particularly French or particularly Polish or… There’s nothing wanting to be French about it. It’s not like [beats chest] ‘We’re French!’” she explains, laughing.

If not French, then what is it? “Human” answers Thiam. “In your life you’re dealing with existential questions and at the same time you’re having sex. That’s what I mean by it’s not particularly French, there are both sides of life. There’s an existential question over our heads and then there’s the concrete stuff, and desire and questioning and everything.” “It’s human” agrees Perrier, nodding.

Answering the questions left hanging by series one

Answers are coming, Gobert promises, but we might have to be patient:

“In fantasy series, as a viewer, you have to accept that the questions will be answered sometime in the series and you have to be patient. But I think at the end of season one there maybe were too many questions for some parts of the audience. Canal Plus warned us to be careful because if you go too far in mysteries and questions you will lose part of the audience. So we have to deal with that. I hope that the first episode of season two gives the audience the impression that they will find answers to their questions. I hope that at the end of season two, all the frustration that the viewers had after seeing season one will be solved. I’ve never felt that all the doors that we open… I knew when we opened them how we could shut them.”

Ad – content continues below

Thiam adds reassuringly, “Almost all the answers are given out in the end.”

Working with Mogwai on the series two soundtrack

Scottish post-rock band Mogwai provided the chilling soundtrack for The Returned’s first series, and they’ve done the same for series two.

Working on the basis of series two’s first couple of scripts, a few photographic reference points, the atmosphere of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and M Night Shyamalan’s The Village, they produced a collection of compositions before the second series had even begun filming. That meant the cast and crew could listen to the music on the series two shoot, helping to evoke The Returned’s eerily beautiful atmosphere.

Cinematic influences and myths

When this show about a very strange small mountain town aired, the Twin Peaks comparisons came thick and fast. Gobert is a huge fan of the Lynch/Frost show, and doesn’t see a problem with wearing his influences on his sleeve. Deciding to keep the name of real-life Annecy bar The Lake Pub in the series, Gobert laughs and shrugs remembering having thought “Ah, it’s a little bit Twin Peaks, but…”

“I like to have a lot of references,” says Gobert, “I think it’s better to go towards them and not be afraid to be too influenced by them.” He’s also a fan of giving his actors character references. He gave Clotilde Hesme, who plays the pregnant Adèle, “a Doris Lessing book about pregnancy” as preparation for series two. In the first series, he’d given Perrier Oscar Wilde’s The Picture Of Dorian Gray to inform his portrayal of Simon, and to the pair of them, he gave the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as a model for their characters’ relationship.

“He gave everybody a mythological figure” explains Thiam, “mine was Antigone.”

Ad – content continues below

What role would Perrier and Thiam say religion plays in this show, which deals with biblical floods and the afterlife? “Like with the Greek myths and movies, religion is just another cultural reference. Fabrice never went into real religious interpretations, never, just using it as a myth,” says Perrier. Thiam agrees, “In France, we’re very secular.”

The early films of David Cronenberg and—for obvious reasons when you see episode one—Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby are also cited as influences on series two. “I love David Cronenberg,” Gobert says, “and when we were writing the first season with Emmanuel Carrère, we watched all the early movies of David Cronenberg, so yes, that’s a great reference.” He continues, “We listened to the Rosemary’s Baby music for a sequence in episode three. I talked about Rosemary’s Baby to Clotilde, who plays Adèle, but I also talked to her about Alien, when Signourney Weaver is pregnant.”

While we’re on the subject, Adèle’s new short haircut in series two isn’t an homage to Mia Farrow in the Polanski film, but the result of a recent film role by Clotilde Hesme’s as a cancer patient.

Beyond series two

Gobert tells us he had a final image for the show in mind when he wrote season one, “that final image, I think you have to have it, but you can change it. So now it’s changed. I used that image in series two, in episode eight, but it’s not the final one.”

“I think there can be a third [series] but season two is really constructed as a mirror to season one,” says Gobert. “There are a lot of questions, a lot of mysteries, a lot of stories that begin in season one and they have to have their completion in season two. But it’s a story—you will see when you see all of season two—it’s the story of a place. We can easily imagine a season three, but I think it will be different from the first two chapters. We called them chapters because we think that there is a strong link between season one and season two. There’s a unity.”

“Something closes at the end of chapter two,” agrees Desmarais.

Ad – content continues below

The Returned series 2 starts on More4 in the UK tonight, Friday the 16th of October at 9pm.

Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.