INTERVIEW: SIMON MIRREN
"I really want writers to be empowered."
by Romy Kraus
At Copenhagen TV Festival we speak with writer, director and executive producer Simon Mirren about empowering writers, the challenges of producing Versailles and pitching lessons - and disasters.
Simon, you are a Brit living in the US and you are one oft the few writers who has crossed borders and had success in multiple countries – with ‚Spooks’ in the UK, ‚Criminal Minds’ in the US, ‚Versailles’ in France and you are currently developing shows set in Berlin and London...
What sent you on that journey and how does the role of the writer differ internationally?
I started in the UK with the BBC on Spooks and heard that in America writers produce what they write which then wasn’t the case in the UK. I felt the digital age was coming and I needed to learn how to produce and direct what I wrote – and the place that offered the chance was Los Angeles because they had built the infrastructure very differently from Europe. So I sincerely got there by accident.
The first show that I worked on was for Jerry Bruckheimer ‚Without A Trace’ which was one oft the big procedural dramas. Then, CSI had really become a benchmark for procedural dramas. They had a particular menu or method to create that.
What’s ‚The Method’ ...?
That’s a secret ... The most important thing in a long-running show is a precinct. I realised every successful drama that I had been working on over the years had a ‚precinct’ at the heart of the show. With regards to ‚Versailles’ – that is the precinct.
I learned the hard way to produce what I wrote on ‚Without A Trace’ – it was a hard lesson but I’m glad I did it. Then I moved on to another show in New York called ‚Third Watch’ which is a more character-based show. That was when Cable Television started to take hold. By that point I had become ‚The guy that worked on procedural dramas’.
I had been on Criminal Minds for 7 years and it was a very dark show show where we were basically killing women every week and I did over 160 episodes of that. As a showrunner my job was to write, to produce, to be in the room, to be on locations. We never left LA but replicated other cities in America. It was a wonderful learning experience but I just felt I really needed to shift and break out of that model.
How did Versailles come about?
I got sent a pitch for Versailles and I looked at the building as a precinct and thought – that’s interesting.
I looked at why Louis built that building. I looked at the character and realised he showed all signs of a psychopath. I asked the people of Versailles – did he oversea the lines of the building – which he did. And that’s a is a kind of control issue and another kind of psychopathic trait.
And then I looked at the brothers in the palace. Philippe who was this gay cross-dressing warrior who went to war in women’s clothes. And I thought what an awesome story that is. And he gets away with it because his brother is the king.
In hindsight we see what Louis and Philippe did with modern media. So I thought the story is there, there is 70 years of history. And then I looked at the complexities of making it.
First of all they wanted to make it in the English language which I immediately knew was gonna be a bad problem for me because I’m from South London.
So I knew it was going to be a big challenge and everybody thought we couldn’t do it.
But I thought it was a great opportunity for me to take what I learned and go back into Europe. I had been doing some masterclasses and spent time talking to writers in Europe and was at times quite disgusted about the way how they were treated and felt they needed to be empowered. Because as our machine changes that writers need to be able to produce what they write is going to be paramount.
I said to Philippe (Alexander Vlahos) 'You are David Bowie. Just think of a 17th century David Bowie.'
- Simon Mirren
Do you see that change happening now?
So yes I wanted to take back what I learned and share that with writers. But it also was one of those things that I felt was an important moment in television. Doing it in the English language wasn’t my choice, it was just what they wanted. I just thought it was a great challenge for me to take everything I learned through the years and into this project. And it was hard. I really wanted to make sure we didn’t make a period drama but that we made something that was modern and felt modern. I always knew it was going to be a critical darling. I wanted the youth to see it and see. The most important thing for me was first of all that it was shot in Versailles which we do every Monday but also that the lead actors where completely unknown and young. Louis was 26 when he was at his most powerful and that is sexy. At 26 years old with that power and this palace – that is sexy. It’s like Vegas. I wanted to make sure that that feeling was represented.
You pitched it to the actors as ‘The Brothers of Versailles’ …
Yes, I said to Philippe (Alexander Vlahos) 'you are David Bowie'. Just think of a 17th century David Bowie. Because what they did cannot be understated. The first musicals ever written took place in Versailles.
And here we are in this revolution / evolution of new media and the desire for content. Everybody keeps saying to me ‘There is too much TV’ but I’m saying ‘There is not enough good TV’. We found most of the people in France watched Versailles in 2 days, 1 season in 2 days. But it takes you 18 months to make it. So there is this insatiable need for high quality content.
Talking about ‘Pitching’ – How do you actually pitch in the room and how does it differ internationally.
‘Pitching’ is an American catch phrase for throwing a ball to someone. I just try to tell stories. And great stories and the ability to tell a great story is all that you really need to do. How you fashion that story to the place you are going depends on the channel you are going to. There are so many different places now where to tell your story and they all have different requirements. HBO has one thing and then we have Netflix where you have an algorithm. There you have to have a script, you have to have talent, you have to have a director. You have to go in with a whole package. At AMC you have to have all 10 episodes.
I’m from the old school pitching which is pilot pitching towards a schedule at the network. You probably have about 120 pilots right now which is insane. Pitching is very un-English. In LA it is really a bit of a performance. When I teach pitching I tell people to stand up because the minute you stand up the energy changes. As you are telling the story you are able to move with the story. I sold most of my pitches. It doesn’t always mean it gets made. But I always stood up and people remember that I stood up. They probably see 10 pitches a day and by the end of the day they’ve forgotten most. But they remember that south London guy – what he was talking about I don’t know but he was excited.
Is ‘excitement’ a big element for the commissioners? I heard quite a lot of commissioners say they want to hear about the one show that the writers are most passionate about.
It’s also a bit political. JJ Abrams can come in and say he wants to make a show about that glass of water and they say ‘awesome’ but he is JJ Abrams. Sometimes it’s a bit political. I had big overall deals where they have to make it because they already paid for it.
I lost my passion with Criminal Minds. I think as storytellers we need to think outside of the box. And now we have entered into a period where you can do storytelling around the world and you have to think outside of the box and be very original and honest to the story you are telling. Which is why I think Scandinavia did so well because everybody looks at America wrongly. Right now definitely. When I got to France I thought it was really sad that writers felt they didn’t have anything to write. But they live in a museum. They live in Paris where you have a multitude of different stories.
Like with ‘Art Of War’ which I’m developing in Berlin right now I really wanted to live it. I’m really into things being really original and true to the place. When I see European shows that look like American shows I think ‘Why would you do that? Why would you copy American shows’.
Richard Price said yesterday ‘Often People want to know – What’s the story all about, what’s the theme.’ But that you don’t really know what the character really is until you’ve lived with him in-between the lines.
That’s very true for character based seasonal stories.
The show that changed everything in America was ‘The Sopranos’. And they pitched it as a family drama about an Italian man and his family and a strip joint. That was it. And at the end they said – and by the way he is the head of the mafia.
And he is going to a shrink …
Without Sopranos Breaking Bad wouldn’t have happened. Many shows wouldn't have happened. I worked with Shawn Ryan who said without Sopranos ‘The Shield’ would have never happened. So it really changed everything.
But now in a pitch when we sell shows in America it is getting very different. Because everybody has a different need and a different desire.
Any pitching disasters you can share?
My worst pitch ever was when I was asked to come over to Paris to pitch a show. I had just mentioned I wanted to make a show about the French Legion. But that was all I had: One line. And suddenly I was on a plane to pitching the show to TF1 - and literally making it up in the room. I was sweating!
My trick to pitching is that I take something from every pitch that I’m going to. A creative note, any feedback ... and then twist the pitch to make it better and better each time.
Do you pitch actors for your shows?
It depends. Sometimes I go in and have an idea. Network tv channels often have contracts with actors and will have their own suggestions.
How long should you prepare your pitch for?
They always keep you 10 minutes waiting and then you get about 12-14 minutes in the room. Which can actually be quite long.