With the Season One finale of Ovation’s new drama series VERSAILLES fast approaching, The Tracking Board was able to speak with co-creator David Wolstencroft about the genesis of the series and what it’s like creating a show unlike any period drama you’ve seen before.
Wolstencroft’s previous credits include MI-5 (also known as Spooks) and Psychos. He co-created Versailles with Criminal Minds executive producer Simon Mirren after years of the pair looking for the right project to work on together. While the show is only just finishing its first season run on Ovation in the US, it launched in France this time last year and has already received a season two order, which finished filming this summer, and plans are already in the works for a third outing.
Keeping reading after the interview for a behind-the-scenes look at Versailles and don’t forget to check out the two-part finale this Saturday, November 19, at 10PM.
TB: David, it’s so nice to talk with you. I hope it’s not too crazy for your brain to have to jump all the way back to season one. Versailles is such an impressive production to pull off and so large in scope. How did you settle on choosing this project, this story?
DW: Well, my writing partner, co-creator, co-producer, business partner, Simon Mirren, he and I met years ago doing a show called MI-5 which I created for the BBC about 12 years ago. He came in to work on it and was really central to it and we kind of fell in creative love, but then wasn’t the right time. Years later, I was in New York doing a show called The Escape Artist with David Tennant and he called me up and said, “Mate, do you know anything about Versailles?” I said, “The weird thing is that you know I’m always banging on at you about the fact that I got a first class degree from Cambridge and it was actually in history and my special subject was Louis XIV.” So we flew to Paris and pitched the show to Canal Plus as a love triangle between Louis and his brother Philippe, and Henriette who is married to Philippe and is enthralled in Louis. And it became the best excuse to get together to fly to Paris and have this extraordinary experience.
TB: The love triangle is clearly the driving force of the first season as we see the back and forth in the brotherly love between Louis and Philippe and then you have Henriette who I found to be such an interesting character. My memory of history class was that she was much more “conniving” and “femme fatale,” but here she is aware of her place and role while letting the other mistresses at court take on those more typically negative attributes. When you studied her, how did she and her role at court come across to you and inform your adaptation of her?
DW: They all knew each other as kids, it’s one of those tight friend situations over the years but these children have dynastic geopolitics around them as well. It’s the perfect way to make it relatable and I think history is a little unkind to her and it’s interesting to see the fan reactions to it or the theory of her and then the reality of her. We were very careful and clear about the way that we wrote our female characters because we wanted to live in that moment of the kind of chaotic historical moment. So yes, she kind of comes between these two brothers and no matter what stories we were telling we could always turn the wheel back to this triangle and shine another light on the way that it works. So all these layers are incredibly rich and we just had an honest reaction to her place in history and didn’t take our lead from anything else.
TB: And then on the flipside, you have these two brothers, Louis, who is the ultimate unlikeable protagonist, and Philippe, who wafts from support to resentment of Louis. What fascinated you the most about that relationship and how did you decide to play that in your adaptation?
DW: With Simon doing Criminal Minds and I was doing MI-5 and Psychos, we both have a lot of angles on the behavioral traits of people and the psychology behind individuals and in looking at Versailles and looking at Louis, who was coming back to this palace to, as Simon says, “to control his environment,” which is something that serial killers do. And it’s something that psychopaths do. They need to be able to control their environment and know their environment back to front. So his decision to come back to Versailles, his father’s hunting lodge, setting aside all the father stuff, is he realized his survival depended on him being able to control where he was and if he was in Paris that wasn’t possible. Whereas Philippe, who was raised secondary to him, had this physical prowess and his sexual proclivity and well we always called him the 17th century David Bowie. He had this power to him, and this charisma to him, and this scope to him, that meant it was the perfect formula to play one against the other. It was the brother who could get away with things because they’re the king’s brother and brothers tend to fight if they’re not killing each other. And Simon and I felt that we’d found brothers in each other as well, by the way. We’re not Louis and Philippe by any means, but we have a sort of healthy competition between us and a big love for each other. We try to help each other grow and to write a show about brothers with someone you consider to be a brother is quite a thing.
TB: What an amazing journey after almost fifteen years!
DW: Absolutely, it was like that story was waiting for us and there it was and it was so clear.
TB: Behind the scenes, how do you set up your writers’ rooms since everything’s over there? Do you follow the US or the British format?
DW: Here the concept of showrunner is a hybrid, not a true showrunner, it’s not what either one of us would call being a showrunner classically. But it was a version of things where there was certainly creative control but the rest of the levers, you know, you’re making something over six months in a foreign country. Simon and I wrote quite a lot of the first season anyway and due to various productions issues we were faced with doing that in the middle of production as well as we were negotiating the new laws of physics of French production and dealing with budgets.
TB: How did you break it down into weekly viewed episodes as you were looking at the scripts?
DW: So season one we wanted to take a piece of history from the death of Louis’ mother up until the moment it looks as though he’s succeeded in his plan which is to start bringing people to Versailles and to start controlling the nobles against the will of everybody. The example we used to give was, wouldn’t it be crazy if the president came to the White House and decided to live somewhere else, which is now redundant analogy, but the step forward would be what if the president-elect moved not only himself and his family but the entire function of government to Trump Tower. That would be an enormous, dreadful mistake but could be genius if you’re Trump because you get to control your environment and there are a lot of people on the beltway that would resist that in a very very secretive sabotage-y way. Well, Louis did do that and all the people with a vested interest tried to stop him. So what wanted to do was say here are the immovable historical moments. Here are the wars, here are the things that are immovable because of the historical veracity. Then here are the emotions behind them based on our knowledge of characters and there is zero evidence of personality. So episodically we had ten steps towards control based on Machiavelli’s The Prince about ideas of image and using war and sort of seeming to be grandiose and magnificent. Then the basic engine for us was, every time there was a solution that Louis comes up with at the end of the episode, that generates the problem for the next episode while keeping the brothers front-and-center. The rubber hits the road at the end of episode two and going into episode three, so you kind of get into it on a more weekly basis as it were.
TB: That moment in episode three, with the African prince and using the baby as a play was one of my favorite moments of the first season and I also just love the wife, Maria Theresa. If there’s one thing I wanted more of in the first season it was her.
DW: I totally agree and she’s an amazing actress and actually in Season Two she has a “Velasquez shot” that I actually had to take a picture of it and frame because it’s just a painting. And she has such allure to her and so many levels of mystery in her performance and that all starts to come out a bit more in season two but she becomes the unexpected heroine of season two as she navigates this world as a queen.
TB: So with Canal Plus rolling out the series in different territories, sometimes months and months apart, how has it been watching the fan reaction?
DW: It’s been wonderful because you get to see it, as you say, roll out into a different cultural milieu. It went gangbusters in France, it went gangbusters in Britain in terms of viewing figures but then they’re always very unsure of anything that isn’t in the classic BBC realm of a period drama. But I think it was the highest rated ever for an acquisition for the BBC 2. It was massive. So that was fantastic and we had this afterglow and then the wonderful people at Ovation threw this crazy launch and this amazing social media thing starts happening and there were these whirlpools of social media chat around the world about it. Then US launch glommed them all together and the fandom created this #InternationalVersaillesDay. It’s one year to the day that we launched in France.
DW: Thank you! So I can’t believe it’s been a year, and the fans have been very patiently waiting for season two. And if you’d told me that it was possible to get a show about 17th century France, in English, successful around the world I certainly wouldn’t have believed you.
TB: I understand a bit why the British audience would be split because when you watch the show the storylines are more “soapy” but visually it’s desaturated and is definitely inspired by the art of that era. It gives the impression of walking the line between a drama like The Tudors and the more classic period stories that Merchant Ivory created. How do you walk that line as you write the series?
DW: We had a very clear line of what we wanted to do. Pierre Bastard who is the DOP of Season One had this kind of Velasquez approach. We were very clear on performance, and I don’t think there’s been a show with the sort of genuinely young age of the characters represented in the way that we did it. And we were looking to be unique, we weren’t looking to be part of a continuum, we were just looking to do what we thought would be cool with some kind of visual panache. And as for the character drama of it, in Downton Abbey what matters is the fate of the house and in this house, Versailles, it’s the fate of the world and civilization. So the stakes are huge. There’s a great quote about Versailles which is: “I’ve tried to write some things down about what happened here and I’m worried about when people hear what happened they’ll think it was a fairytale. They’ll think we’re making it up. But it happened.” We wanted to honor that and say well here’s what that person thinks and then here’s where that person didn’t know where the real party was. What else do they have to do but plot, and seduce, and be trapped in this extraordinary environment? It was a real attempt to show the redacted history under the surface.
TB: We have big audience of writers on our site who are looking to establish themselves. Do you have any advice to them, maybe even drawing from your own experience?
DW: I was offered a job at a finance house out of university and I had half-thought of going into finance, which could’ve ended terribly because I’m not very good at arithmetic. But deep down I wanted to be a storyteller. I came out to LA when I was 21 just fact-finding and to talk to agents and I had scripts to show but I spoke to someone who said, “You should go back to Britain and do something where you can get your point of view, your voice, locked on celluloid.” So get something made that has your personality. As a writer, direct something that you’re writing or produce something that you’re writing. So my advice would be to author something, truly author something, the bonus level is to get experience making something. So make it on your phone, make some version of it. Write and produce and direct a short film. And then in the writers’ room or wherever you end up writing you can bring total confidence to whatever suggestion you’re making because there’s no one else that could make that suggestion.
Emily J | Staff Writer