Behind The Scenes: Writer Dan Franck on Creating "Marseille"

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The novelist, screenwriter, and creator of Netflix’s newest knockout series, premiering this May, opens up about his process, the plot, the comparisons to House of Cards, and what it’s actually like to work with Netflix. As told to DEPARTURES editor Julian Sancton.

The story of Marseille takes place today. It’s a political struggle between two candidates during the municipal elections in France’s second city. It examines the violence of the political world, and of contemporary society. The fundamental question asked at the very beginning of Marseille is, Who will be elected? You get your answer in the very last minute of the series. Along the way it reveals the rise of extremism, which we see everywhere—in your country too, with Monsieur Trump.

Marseille is an immensely rich and complex city, a very lovable city. It’s a mix of so many populations—especially so many immigrant populations that live in the center of the city, and not on the outskirts, like in Paris. It’s the city with the second-largest population of Muslims in Europe, if I’m not mistaken, yet there is no Salafist-jihadist danger, at least for now. Which is very interesting from the sociological point of view.

I knew Marseille a little before starting this project, but very little. Now I’ve spent a lot of time there, thanks to my friend Sabrina Roubache, who is a young producer from the immigrant neighborhoods. She introduced me to everyone in Marseille: I went to city hall, I went the mosques, I went to the cités [low-income districts]—everywhere. I met all sorts of people. We shot portions of Marseille in one of the poorest cités in France, and without that friend, I would not have had access to it. Very frequently I would call contacts that I had in those neighborhoods and ask questions about the language or the facts. I wanted it to have the ring of truth.

Consider the issue of drugs, for example. Half of Marseille plays a part in the drug economy, so we can’t sweep this problem under the rug and say, Oh it’s nothing. No, it’s a very important social question—and not only in Marseille, but from a global, sociological perspective, too. That’s what the series is about.

Netflix puts their trust in creators, but they have very high artistic standards. They are hands-off—we are free—but they are always speaking with us. They respect their audience. They want the product to be good, so they’re quite exacting when it comes to scripts, but also when it comes to direction and photography. They are comparable to a film studio in that sense, but they work faster.

I met the Netflix people for the first time two years ago over the course of a lunch at director Pascal Breton’s house—they chose one of the rare French authors who don’t speak English. I was asked in front of the Netflix staff to tell my story, which was then translated. I had written 100 pages. I saw people react, but I didn’t understand how they were reacting. And at the end, they applauded and I told myself, It’s good.

I didn’t study screenwriting, but I’ve written about thirty books, many of which are popular fiction, but of quality—I hope. Actually, I know. And the rules of such stories, for me in any case, were drawn especially from popular French literature of the 19th century: Balzac, Dumas, Eugène Sue. It’s an incredible literary school. These texts were serialized in newspapers and to retain the readership, it was essential that these stories be very tense, and that there be cliffhangers on each page. I write most of my books like that. I write television series like that. And that is how I wrote my previous TV series, Carlos.

I’d like this to be a universal story. I think that a work of art—a film, a book, a play—must have universal relevance. We find these characters in all sorts of situations, but they need to feel relevant to everyone. This struggle for the mayorship of Marseille—what I would call the backbone of this project—we can find that struggle everywhere. I’ve been following your election. The electoral violence in the U.S. (as well as in France, and everywhere in Europe right now, by the way), Marseille showcases that through the characters—not through specific political systems. What interests me is the political brawling. There’s no ideology behind it.

A lot of people make a comparison with House of Cards. First of all, I would say that if we reach the quality of House of Cards, it would be wonderful. There. But it’s not House of Cards. And it shouldn’t be compared to House of Cards because the intelligence of House of Cards depends on a very strong, cynical vision of interpersonal relationships. I would say that Marseille depends strongly on emotional attachments. The quest for power comes after that. In House of Cards, everything is related to that quest for power. Marseille is more tender.