Deadline: Frank Doelger On Creating ‘Concordia’s Utopian Setting, And The Darkness Just Beneath

June 5, 2024
EXCLUSIVE: Frank Doelger’s latest world-building exercise will debut globally at Seriencamp on Thursday when science-fiction drama Concordia gets its world premiere.

Above we’ve got an exclusive clip from the “near-fi” series, which follows a flourishing, utopian Swedish city in which citizens’ lives are monitored by millions of AI-powered cameras. After nearly 20 years of harmonious and peaceful living, life is disrupted by a hacker attack and a murder that shock the diverse residents who make up the community.

Doelger told Deadline how the development of technology and AI in the real world had led to development being overhauled several times before it was decided to set the project in the present day. This allowed for the producers and writers to use existing technology as backdrop and focus on the murder mystery plot at the center of the story.

“Things change as you’re developing them,” said Doelger. “When development goes on for a long time, in addition to the normal process, some of the themes and issues are developing at the same time. We keep chasing things, but you have to just get going at some point.”

The series is the latest from Intaglio Films, the production house Doelger set up after producing Game of Thrones between 2012 and 2017. The company is already behind big-budget European drama The Swarm and Concordia has similarly high ambitions and a similar set of international partners. Intaglio, which counts German firms Beta and ZDF Studios as its parents, has produced the show for ZDF, MBC and France Télévisions and streamer Hulu Japan, with support from Mitteldeutsche Medienförderung, Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, Trentino Film Commission. Beta Film and ZDF Studios are handling international sales.

Barbara Eder, who was attached to Doelger’s previous series The Swarm, is the director and Ute Leonhardt, Rafferty Thwaites, Jan Wünschmann and Robert Franke the exec producers, with Nicholas Racz and Mike Walden the series co-creators. They are writing alongside Isla van Tricht and the producers are Tobias Gerginov, Jacob Glass, and Sergio Ercolessi. Doelger is exec producer and showrunner.

International Emmy-winner Christiane Paul stars as the visionary behind Concordia. Steven Sowah plays her son Noah, the ambassador in charge of expanding the experiment; Ruth Bradley plays an external investigator who joins up with another woman Nanna Blondell to uncover how the utopia was created. Kento Nakajima the head of the AI system, and Jonas Nay plays a member of an anti-surveillance group called ‘The Faceless.’ Ahd Kamel, Hugo Becker and Joséphine Jobert also star.

We sat down with Doelger over Zoom to hear about the project, which debuts in Cologne at the Seriencamp TV festival at 6.15pm local time today, and his future plans.

DEADLINE: What was the initial idea behind what became Concordia?

I was fascinated by the idea of utopian communities, particularly those started by companies such as Siemens, Cadburys and Hershey, which were created to provide the highest living standards possibly for those who worked for them. If such a community was built today, I wondered what would that look like.

DEADLINE: And what did that lead to?

In conversations with consultants, it became clear one component would be surveillance, not just for safety and but also to monitor health and other elements. Knowing you’re being watched transforms one’s behavior, but the trick was that to be effective, the system has to be in effect in all times, in all places. So how do you convince people to move a community where you have to be one camera 24 hours a day? It occurred to us we already live in a world where to some extend that is already true, but was there a way to spin it to change the dynamic and spin it? What would happen if, yes, you’re on camera, but no one was watching? To gain access the footage, you’d have to make a court order just like how you access information in most societies already. You build in firewalls. 

DEADLINE: What were the challenges for you during development?

Every time we imagined the community, the technology kept advancing beyond us, so instead of setting it in the future, we decided to set it today. AI was not the impetus for the project but something we came to as part of an exploration of utopian society. The community had to be a model people could follow. You couldn’t build a futuristic city. You had to go into a dying town, rebuild it and repopulate it. You had to open the doors to anyone from around the world, and to put in other simple rules and regulations. The differences between the lowest and highest paid was controlled, and you made sure it is socially liberal with freedoms people can share with each other.

The problem is you can never keep evil out completely. When we sent the idea to directors and other crew members, they expected we’d create a dystopian world, but this was quite the opposite – it was utopian. Really, it was about the inception of the community and where the original sin lay.

What else is key about building a world like this on screen?

On Game of Thrones, I learned that when you have shows that are fantasy, futuristic or not real on some level, you have to find the balance to make the real world as real as possible. The other layer is then introduced in a way that is complementary. There was nothing fantastic about Concordia — it could look like any town anywhere. We wanted to cast with people you’d find in a sophisticated, international city. You then want to blend that together in the most naturalistic way.

DEADLINE: What about the design of the city?

We wanted to dispel the idea surveillance is a force for evil, against the dystopian cliché, so we went to a very verdant area, hopefully hitting as much sunshine as we could. The spaces needed to be transparent — the Concordia HQ office has no solid walls and nothing is hidden. I was very impressed when Norman Foster redesigned the Reichstag — inside you could actually see how the government is working. Making it seem as normal and pleasant a place to live as possible informed our decisions. That influenced location, lighting, set design and casting.

DEADLINE: Concordia is another Intaglio show with numerous international partners. How important is it to build such financing models in today’s market?

The international structure is certainly becoming increasingly popular and necessary with the financial challenges most producers are facing. For us, by definition, the brief of any project we do is that the subject matter must be international. You can’t do a domestic story and simply change locations and the identity of characters to make the financing internationally.

DEADLINE: What else have you been working on?

Our slate has broadened. When we started the company, I had learned from time at HBO to find projects that got off the entertainment page, with topics or ideas that might attract viewers or journalists interested in them. Most producers, writers, directors and producers come with interesting projects and the question is whether you can make their idea fit to your brief. We’ve become more open to that and we’ve expanded on the people we’re working with on both sides of the camera. It’s important to stretch ourselves.

What is the status of Doing Good, the Intaglio drama that’s been in development since 2019?

We plan to be shooting at the start of 2025. We’re just out to directors now. It’s a very ambitious project. As we’ve seen with projects like Concordia, things change as you’re developing them. When development goes on for a long time, in addition to the normal process, some of the themes and issues are developing at the same time. We keep chasing things, but you have to just get going at some point.

DEADLINE: How do you structure your projects?

Our first port of call by design is Beta and our European partners. At one point that was completely at odds with some of the streamers, but that has obviously changed now. In some situations, we may make a project and be able to bring on streamers later, and that is model that we’re exploring right now. Then there are some projects where we go with directly to Max, Netflix, Apple or Disney. It’s a moveable feast right now, but everyone has become more flexible. I’m hoping to build on relationships I’ve made across the board. Not only at HBO but with people I know at other streamers.

How do you feel about the rise in pan-European commissions? What are the key components to making them work?

It is the way forward to get projects financed, and to get out early you have to attract partners at development stage. It is a little more time consuming and you have to be in a situation where all partners know what is agreed on in terms of editorial vision. That’s the most thing. Most partners we’ve worked with understand that and are open to an exchange of ideas from development to casting and production.

DEADLINE: What’s next for Frank Doelger and Intaglio? 

I’ve always had a lot of balls in the air, and I try to keep them all up there. Which one lands next, we’ll see. It’s 50% chance and 50% by design. The key thing is to broaden the reach of the company, bring in some new partners, and make sure team gets to spread their wings and help them with their own ideas and push them forward.