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Translating the World’s Best Television: An Interview with Walter Iuzzolino

By Charles Shafaieh

Italian-born Walter Iuzzolino is the founder of Walter Presents, an online streaming service featuring the best international television series from around the world, subtitled for an English-reading audience. 

Walter Iuzzolino talks about television with the passion of a gourmand. “It's like learning about Belgium by stuffing your face with Belgian chocolate,” he exclaims, with giddy excitement, about the pleasures of immersing oneself in other cultures through programs like Norway’s Valkyrien or France’s Spin. The similarity extends beyond the explicit food comparisons though. For Iuzzolino, watching quality television, whether refined or pulpy, provides extreme pleasures of the sort that seem to satisfy his entire body and mind.

Without his unadulterated enthusiasm, Walter Presents, Iuzzolino’s new streaming service in America featuring premium international dramas from around the world, could not exist. An expansion of his now-beloved collaboration with the UK’s Channel 4 that has had British viewers binging on Dutch shows some weeks and Latin American ones the next, Walter Presents offers a much-needed curatorial antidote to the algorithm-based, often nonsensical suggestions and programming overload found on platforms like Netflix and Hulu.

Every series available is carefully chosen by Iuzzolino not for a specific demographic or out of any sense of obligation but because he loves each of them and hopes, sincerely, that you will too. It may sound saccharine, but the business model—only somewhat similar to a small imprint at a publishing house—emerges from the same impulse that drives the recommendations we all share with our friends. Thankfully for us, Iuzzolino has the means to make his suggestions available to audiences without their needing to scour the Internet for bootlegged or shoddy-subtitled versions of some of the most popular, and perhaps best, television programs that before now have been virtually inaccessible to English markets.

Earlier this month, Iuzzolino and I had a feverish-paced, hour-long conversation during which we discussed the origins of Walter Presents, how he thinks Henry James would be writing Mad Men if he were alive today, and the ways in which exposure to international programming can counter the isolationist turn gaining momentum in America and around the world. It can be difficult to get a word in when Iuzzolino starts talking about his offerings, but like a great butcher or cheesemonger who welcomes you to her stall, he creates the best kind of problem: entrancing you with what he has to say while also making you wish you were at home already, starting to indulge.

Charles Shafaieh (CS): Could you give us an introduction of how you started Walter Presents and why you are bringing it to America?

Walter Iuzzolino (WI): I started the company a little more than three years ago, but it was always a big passion of mine. Being born and raised in Italy, I was exposed to many different nationalities’ literature but also TV—partly because Italian TV is dubbed. That is stylistically quite bad, obviously, as it damages the performance, but it means that the viewer in a regular week will digest a lot of different things. You’ll have an Italian show on Monday, an American import like Desperate Housewives on Tuesday, a French cop show or German World War II–type piece on Wednesday, so you’re exposed to a lot of different textures, styles, and cultural perspectives. This means that in Italy the notion of independent cinema and sophisticated storytelling is very nicely mixed in with mainstream, well-crafted television. They’re one and the same thing in the eye of the Italian viewer. I sort of gobbled everything up, from terrible dubbed Latin American soap operas, which I enjoyed watching with my granny, to quite serious stuff that I watched with my mom and dad. So I was used to texture, variety, and complexity. None of it seems foreign because it is all in Italian, so you welcome it with open arms.

When I moved to the UK, though, everything was incredibly Anglo-American. There were no other voices, and if anything, the culture of subtitles and foreign stuff was relegated to the elite—it was very art house, which, don’t get me wrong, I love. You either had super elitist cinema-club stuff or Anglo-American style television, with nothing in between. I remember thinking that it’s weird that the mainstream audience is not exposed to excellent material in the way that Americans are with AMC, Showtime, and HBO. So I started nursing that dream a little bit, and about ten years ago when the first international drama came to the UK—the French show Spiral, which I liked very much—I thought that if this show finds an audience and has enough traction, then it will be time to try to make this happen. Spiral began as a kind of cult piece, but within a season, it was a big thing and critically loved. So it’s not snobbery—the Brits are able to spot quality and admire a great piece of storytelling.

I was working in factual television as a commissioner in the UK for many years, but there was a good juncture point in my life when the company that I owned was sold to Discovery, so I had a batch of money in my hand that I could choose what to do with, and I asked myself whether I should continue down this interesting but corporate path or sink my savings into something that I really love. I did the latter, which, in hindsight, was a very good idea! I got together with [cofounders] Jo McGrath and Jason Thorp, and we set up the company to fill the gap left by AMC, Showtime, and HBO. We’re all huge admirers of their premium, beautiful drama that to me is the modern equivalent of the serialized novel—a kind of contemporary Balzac, Henry James, George Eliot, and Dickens. My PhD is in Henry James, and I’ll always say—though he’d probably kill me for it—that if he were alive today, I think he would be writing Mad Men and that his colleagues would be writing a nice crime thriller like Billions because I think that the contractual relationship that these writers had with their audiences, in the sense of releasing one piece a week and making it cliff-hanger based, is not dissimilar. The notion that at the end of the series, the book would be released in a kind of Netflix-type way makes it quite interesting.

My PhD is in Henry James, and I’ll always say . . . that if he were alive today, I think he would be writing Mad Men and that his colleagues would be writing a nice crime thriller like Billions.

So we went for it. HBO and the others taught the world how to tell these stories, but the rest of the world hadn’t stood still. The Scandinavians were the first who started to pop a little bit. When we started researching, though, we didn’t know exactly what we needed, so a year and a half was required to plow the world in a kind of truffle-hunting mission. It has to be said, because I think it’s a point of honor, the starting point was purely passion. We went through about four thousand hours really, and that’s enough to say, OK, between 2005 and now, this is largely what the world has produced. This 97.5% is what’s not right for us, and this 2.5% is what’s right for us. What was right for us was uber-premium, brilliant quality: great writing and directing, super crisp stuff that had won awards and been seen by millions of people in its home country. We wanted to speak to the HBO audience and say these are shiny, mainstream pieces, but they are also beautiful, elegant, and intellectually rewarding. It’s not designed to make you feel clever, or to exclude people who don’t have an upbringing in cinema or German Expressionism. These are broad, populist stories.

One of the first pieces I found—the French political thriller Spin—was one that we are launching in America. It’s a complete Balzac in many ways, a sort of House of Cards but more contemporary and relevant. It centers on two opposing spin doctors and tells the story of the recent election, Brexit, and this world in turmoil. It’s the post-truth world where what matters is how cleverly you manipulate something in order to gain power. It’s sort of displaced from the House of Cards “I want to be President” narrative to the people behind it all—a Kellyanne Conway kind of show. So it has urgency and beauty as a thriller, which I think is very significant, but also, it’s a beautiful French feuilleton. Sex, blackmail, backstabbing—it just has that classic, velvety, visceral, unashamed to be sexy and slightly amoral thing that some of the best French novels have. So I thought that if I could find another fifty like Spin, we’d have an amazing collection.

A year and a half in, we started to talk to providers from Channel 4 [a main British broadcast channel]. I would say in six weeks, we got a deal. They funded that, they funded this expansion, and they funded a company that together would aim for global expansion. The remit for us was, very much: Imagine if AMC and HBO had subtitles. That’s what we want to be. We want to be the home of the very best drama in the world with English subtitles. Obviously there’s a plethora of services out there right now. But I think that what really differentiates us is that while the odd Hulu or Netflix will cherry-pick a piece or will produce something in Germany because they need German subscribers, everything gets lost because everything in a market is driven by that language and that culture. Theirs is curation by algorithm. I always say it is man vs. machine, and they are a giant supermarket; they need to serve a giant family audience. I’m not being a revolutionary; I’m absolutely in favor of supermarkets. You go there for your staples and the convenience. But our aim was to do the complete opposite and be a boutique, like a Dean and DeLuca. We wanted to curate a deli where it’s intensely personalized and everything is handpicked by the curator. You go in there not saying I want some bread, but What should I get for tonight, my girlfriend is coming over? And I go, OK, these are the capers, they are just right, they are amazing. Have them with this wine. So it’s about trust, recommendation, and genuinely handpicked gems.

The idea for the name—and it wasn’t even my idea, because I’m actually quite a shy person, so I never envisioned calling this Walter Presents or being on camera at all—came from the Chief Creative Officer of Channel 4, Jay Hunt. She is an incredible, visionary woman and one of the actual titans of broadcasting in Britain now. She said they tried to come up with a number of names—World Drama, World Drama Original—but they all sounded like medicine. And the truth of this brand, she said, is that I am the brand, that I am the sort-of-natty man who really loves this stuff and who locked himself in his kitchen, watched all this stuff, and has a real passion. She said, You communicated with me with such enthusiasm, that you made me want to acquire a Czech drama, which I never would have dreamed of watching and I now love. She said, What I’m asking is that with this brand, we tell the story of the brand, which is the individual. And that had never been attempted in the UK, or in the US, to my knowledge.

Imagine if AMC and HBO had subtitles. That’s what we want to be. We want to be the home of the very best drama in the world with English subtitles.

Walter Presents is like dinner party conversation, and there’s a sense of the type of person who likes the personal recommendation. Viewers become brand ambassadors, because your relationship with the content is so personal that you go, This is mine, it speaks to me. Because it’s like a novel. You have to sit and concentrate. And the fact that you have to invest more makes it less of a kind of disposable, trashy, watch-and-go-to-bed experience and more of a cinema night. It’s a special night. You say, I’m going to be in Paris, with the big Parisian stars, and I’m going to hear their languages, and see their visuals, and I’m going to be there. That I think speaks to you in such a personal way, that once you have watched it—this is how I felt and I have noticed that fans feel the same way—you think it is yours. You go, This is my book, I discovered it, and I’m going to tell you, you really have to read it, it’s amazing.

Its raison d’être is absolutely not to educate you. This is not the medicine you take to feel better or to speak better French. But it’s knowledge through sheer pleasure. It’s like learning about Belgium by stuffing your face with Belgian chocolate! People are feeling an attachment to the country where the shows come from and they do a thing now called “set jetting” where they literally take the Eurostar or a jet and they go spend the weekend in the location they’ve seen in the drama.

CS: I think New Mexico has gotten a lot of tourism from Breaking Bad.

WI: I personally quite like that. It really has been as simple as a cultural and storytelling passion blown up into a brand. The work has been crazy and meticulous. We vet everything, we subtitle everything. Even when they provide us something with subtitles, we strip it all off. We’ve hired the biggest and most prestigious subtitling agency that does the film festivals in Venice, Cannes, and Berlin, so they are proper cinema and literature people. They do eye-tracking device checks so you don’t spend more than x-percent of your time reading so that you enjoy the imagery. It’s done in a very sophisticated way so as not to be an impediment but actually to be an enhancement to the experience.

It is a little boutique, and it’s very curated, and it’s very loved. We champion what we have. You may not like every single program, but by and large the taste is very specific and very clear. Surely, the UK has delivered to us a big, loyal, very passionate audience of incredibly upmarket people. And they’re across the age spectrum. There are young twentysomethings that love Deutschland 83 because they love the cultural references to the old Walkman and stuff like that, to the older, academics and neuroscientists who just happen to like the teenage vampire drama from Denmark because of the iconography and so on. So it’s been quite interesting, and now it’s coming to the US!

Image: “Deutschland 83.”

CS: I think that there’s a way in which it’s possible that the Americans might be more receptive. There’s still a certain fascination with other cultures here, as much as there’s a closure in terms of political dialogue right now. Americans don’t see as much escapist entertainment on their TVs as the British do, but we still love it. 

WI: You’re right. Why not? Bringing something like this to the US is a big effort, and it’s a big investment. I never doubted it, and I’m here with complete belief that it will work, for two reasons really: One—the climate could not be better, in a paradoxical way, because every big, interesting cultural shift in history has happened in moments of great change and in moments of implicit tension. Art movements, whether it’s punk or it’s Matisse, [are inspired by] people trying to redefine who we are and what’s happening. Art tends to flourish [in times of anxiety] because it’s an escape. I hope that in a tiny little way, we offer one seed of that. And two—because I think that [like] America—and indeed the UK, because we just Brexited—Western Civilization right now is swept by a wave of cultural conservatism, and that’s understandable for seven thousand reasons. However, I think that human beings are human beings, and passion and joy and communication and openness will forever prevail because it’s our instinct. We are born to communicate. We are born to build bridges and not to break them. It’s who we are. Otherwise we would be alone in a room. Do you know what I mean? It doesn’t matter whether you build it with a Belgian person or an American person.

We are born to communicate. We are born to build bridges and not to break them. It’s who we are. Otherwise we would be alone in a room. . . . It doesn’t matter whether you build it with a Belgian person or an American person.

American audiences have a nose for excellence. This is the country that gave the world Mad Men and Breaking Bad. America has always been at the forefront of cultural revolution when it comes to audiovisual. So why wouldn’t it be now? And I think that it means that the viewers of HBO and AMC and Showtime, and there are millions of them, will completely welcome the companion piece, because they avidly consume this stuff. They want the lovely, curated, beautifully commissioned The Night Of that is made for them. So you go, OK, when you’ve finished The Night Of, you can pick one of ours. And it will deliver to that caliber. And I think Americans will totally love that. So I think it’s not only that America is ready for it now, but it’s always been at the vanguard of this, and it doesn’t mean every single American will, but I think that there is a vast contingent of Americans that love quality when they see it, and embrace it and champion it with real vigor, and I hope they turn up in spades.

CS: As do I!

WI: You’re the first! You have to try it!

CS: My father’s Iranian and my mother’s from Northern Minnesota—and, funnily enough, both watched many of the same programs in their childhoods in the ’50s and ’60s—so my sensibilities derive from quite a diverse variety of cultural influences. I’m one of those people who goes through Netflix or tries to find bootleg copies of these programs online because there’s often no other way to see them, so this is a valuable opportunity for people like me.

Thinking back to something paradoxical you said earlier though, about how everyone would be in their own rooms if they weren’t connected: You are in your own room when you are watching television, and yet you are still connecting with people.

WI: Yes, and not only that. I’ve thought about this long and hard, because this is a mission in more than one way. When I watched TV for a living—and I watched 10 hours a day roughly for work—I got up at 8:30 and went bang, bang, bang. I watch through stuff that will hit the cutting room floor. Whenever I come across something I really love though, I stop right there and I take it over to watch with my partner. Because there’s something so wonderful about it; it’s more than a book in that sense, because you share it. You wouldn’t really read a book together. Podcasts, radio? It’s harder, it’s freakier. Whereas with this, you go, “Hang on, wait for me! Let’s stop it at five, let’s continue next week” because it’s so nice to be under a blanket with a cup of hot chocolate and go, let’s do another Borgen tonight. There’s something quite shared about it, and Jo, my colleague, always says “I think that Netflix has saved a lot of marriages” because binge watching does that. It’s the same pleasure you derive on your own on the beach with a book when you go, oh, I’ll carry on, because I love it so much. But you share this. Literally the next day, you go to your friends, You’ve got to watch it. It’s not something that will knock on your door, necessarily. But once it does, you kind of feel weirdly proud of the piece. You go, I don’t just like Borgen, I love Borgen!

CS: Like Borgen and Spin, dramas are the focus for you. Does drama get defined in various ways though? And what about comedy—or is that genre untranslatable in a certain way?

WI: That is a very good question. I would say drama with a capital D, but also drama in the HBO sense. Of course, it’s multi-pronged. Of course, there’s texture and variety in there. They are not all thrillers. There’s quite a lot of thrillers and crime [series], but, I would say in the same way that the programming of HBO gives you a range—the violent Sopranos and True Detective; the lyrical, morbid family saga Six Feet Under; Girls and Sex and the City, which are really escapist—that’s a very broad range already. I would say Walter Presents gives you exactly that. Where we don’t go is the dragons, because I personally don’t respond to fantasy that well. I find it hard to suspend disbelief. Swords and dragons are weird for me. I always say, for me, a drama needs a kitchen and a taxi. And so people have to take a taxi—they can’t fly. That’s my personal thing.

Image: Scene in “Young and Promising.”

60-65% I would define as either family/kitchen sink drama or crime/mafia/political thrillers. There’s a crime element to it for sure. There are delightful comedy dramas, which cover the Sex and the City and Girls type things. There’s a beautiful piece called Young and Promising from Norway that actually subverts completely the Nordic Noir. It’s three girls in their twenties who all tried to be successful—one tried to be a writer, one a comedian, and one an actress—and they all failed completely. So it’s a joyful failure. They have sex with their exes, and they get drunk, and they fail again, and have to go back and live with their mom and dad. It plays out in real life. It’s beautiful, it’s crafted amazingly well. But it’s like Girls. From Norway. With the added benefit that you are in Oslo, and they all look quite Norwegian, which is kind of fun.

Where we don’t go is pure comedy with a capital C because that’s so culturally specific, and it’s frequently to do with pace. Some countries define comedy as slapstick; others, it’s just a fast stroke Woody Allen kind of thing that you would miss in translation, so we’ve steered clear of that. But in terms of comedy-drama, when we have a beautiful piece from Belgium called New Texas. It’s about four brothers who are completely different, rowdy, and they hate each other, they fall out all the time. It’s sort of grotesquely beautifully done. They have a Christmas dinner where everything is going terribly wrong, and Dad keels over and dies of a heart attack. And they discover they have inherited a beautiful villa—a crumbling house that they never knew Dad had. The catch is that they have to live in it together in harmony for a year in order to have it, or it will go to charity. And so, sparks fly. It’s a warm, family comedy, but it’s got an interesting Nordic edge to it, because it is quite philosophical.

Image: Scene in “Valkyrien.”

But if I was to highlight four key pillars on which we built the US adventure: one is Spin, which I mentioned to you, the political thriller. The other one is an amazing piece from Norway called Valkyrien. I think it heralds a complete renaissance in Norwegian drama, and it is probably one of the very best Scandi noirs I’ve seen in years and years. Because Scandi noir is becoming a bit repetitive—in terms of the tropes, you’ve got the missing girls, the chalked-up bodies cropping up in the forest, the sadistic serial killer with a bit of an eco, anti-pharmaceutical point to make, the cop who is about to divorce from his wife. The tropes are great, but they become repetitive. This one has gone completely high concept, and it’s amazing. When they pitched this to me, it sounded like the Pedro Almodóvar film I really love called Talk to Her.

CS: That’s my favorite Almodóvar film!

WI: That’s amazing! I love that you said that. Because to me, it’s the idea of loving someone in a coma, and using that to understand the boundaries of morality, and to what extent is it moral or immoral, love, and indeed sex, with someone that may not be alive. It’s amazing. And they pitched it to me like that. It’s a thriller without a mass murderer, without a missing child, or a body in a forest, or whatever. So, there’s no killer, there’s no cop—it’s a thriller about morality.

The third pillar is Black Widow, the most iconic Dutch series of all time that is almost like if Tony Soprano was killed in episode one and Carmela took over the clan. It spans four seasons, has won awards all over the world, and is one of those pieces that really stays with you. Finally, Flight HS13 is Homeland meets The Affair, which sounds like a freaky pitch but is really quite pertinent. It is an international conspiracy/terrorist-type thriller, but it’s brought into the world of the personal relationships. A high-octane political thriller that speaks to its audience in a very direct manner.

CS: I’m curious about these comparisons to American television shows, which I’ve also noticed in your now-beloved introductions on Walter Presents. I’m curious if this comes out of a marketing approach or another impulse?

WI: Marketing—oh, god no! To me it’s implicit because, for me, those American shows are staples. I eat them all the time. So whether it’s Halt and Catch Fire, which I think is a masterpiece, or a remake like The Tunnel, I devour these shows constantly, and for me they become big pieces of iconography. They are almost like defining books, so every time I watch something, my mind goes there. Sometimes I do the reverse, though, but it’s almost like all of these shows are Lego blocks—like this one is red and a certain length, and that one is blue and a different length—and, like understanding the implicit grammar of storytelling, I know how they fit together. I never thought about it as marketing, but now that you say that, I can see it.

CS: It’s not a negative thing—it’s actually helpful!

WI: Yes, to me it’s a shortcut. I actually started using it with my British friends, who I would call and say, I’ve discovered this show that you’ve got to watch, and they would groan. Then I would say, No, no, no! It’s amazing. It’s a bit like . . . And so I used that card because the audience knows House of Cards, they watch The Affair, so it helps to hook people so they don’t think this is, say, a frightening, unwatchable thing from the Czech Republic; this is actually The Affair and Homeland kind of coming together. Not all shows have it. Some are literally just pieces that have to stand on their own because there’s no reference. It’s like literature, though. If you read a lot of novels, you see that every society tells the same ten stories, whether it’s politics or betrayal or love or nostalgia, whether it’s Thomas Mann or Henry James or Donna Tartt, we always tell the same stories. It’s a question of how you create the connections.

If you read a lot of novels, you see that every society tells the same ten stories, whether it’s politics or betrayal or love or nostalgia, whether it’s Thomas Mann or Henry James or Donna Tartt, we always tell the same stories. It’s a question of how you create the connections.

CS: It’s a way to create a bond with other people too, because you know that they have a certain connection with that show.

WI: I suppose it’s my way of doing the nicest recommendation while making it very personal. Genuinely, there is no algorithm; genuinely, there is me, and so what you like and dislike about it is what you like and dislike about my taste. People ask, Who do you buy for? When you buy a piece, does it skew more male or more female? Are you buying for Middle England? No, none of that. I’ve done that in the past when I was a commissioner. The curse of mainstream network television is that you are designed to appeal to the broadest number of possible people, and the more you get in, the better for you, and that pollutes the process enormously—you think, let’s chuck in a baby so that it will appeal to mothers, or let’s chuck in a man with a sword so it will appeal to dad. I mean, that’s really cynical. I think that everybody has their own sense of what makes a great story. It’s pigeonholing audiences if you are thinking that if you tick that box, that viewer will come. I often say, with Walter Presents, I buy for myself. I really do. It’s a little shop. I have to live with the furniture. Ultimately, I want you to buy this table, but if you don’t buy it, I sit with it here twenty-four hours a day. So I need to create an environment where everything I buy, I absolutely love, because that’s the only element that will give me the energy to make you see why it is worth buying. Otherwise, I would collapse, because I am a one-man band.

CS: The BBC in particular is a good example of what you’re discussing, in terms of viewership. As much as I love the network, there is a manner in which they give you entertainment, news, or any type of programming in a particular way, with a particular aesthetic and style of delivery. And it not only conditions but also creates its audience—their sensibilities, expectations, and even philosophical beliefs. I don’t think we have an equivalent in American television to make the comparison.

WI: You’re absolutely right. And I think in America, you have it in a slightly more fragmented way. The BBC is a church. It’s something that tells you how to feel about the war, how to feel about politics, how to listen to recorded music, and what drama to watch. They are a cult.

CS: The closest thing in America, I think, is National Public Radio.

WI: You are right, it probably is. Because they are America.

CS: There’s a distinct personality type—the “NPR listener.” PBS doesn’t function in quite the same way. NPR is that same religious experience as the BBC.

WI: What America does very well, and what is very much like the BBC but in a much more layered way—this is a sector, as opposed to the national psyche—is that it speaks to clear constituents. There is an intended viewer [of] cable premium drama. I can tell you where they go, what range of music they listen to, where they shop. The consumer of premium drama is pretty much an American phenomenon. And it’s a very clear breed. I don’t mean it in an elitist way, saying better or worse. But it is a certain type of committed viewer, where they love craft, they love photography. If the title sequence is not right, they’ll be outraged. They want it photographed really well. They want the sound to be crisp and beautiful. And whether it is a shorter piece or a long-running epic or a smattering of 30 Rock, they look at the world through a very clear prism and lens. And I give credit to the American big cable channels for doing that. Because they have created a very specific taste, and they have created a community that responds and buys into it in more than one way.

CS: Do you think that what you’re offering changes that? Might you shock the system a little bit?

WI: My hope is that my offering will do two things: that it will complement what is there, and it will, yes, shake [it] up a little bit, purely in the sense that the cultural shakeup is interesting to me. I hope that the excellence and the caliber of what we bring, with the added bonus that it’s from a different country and perspective, will generate a wave of enthusiasm in American audiences. Hopefully it will make them even more demanding, and they will go, Come on, make more of an effort! Because I know that there’s more you can give me now. You don’t need to repeat the same six tropes. And even when doing American drama, it can be set differently, in a more oblique way. It doesn’t need to be in [one of] the same three iconic settings, like Washington. In that sense, I hope [we do shake things up]. But as I said, I see myself and the brand as something that sits alongside those lovely ones that I adore and consume all the time. If we can gain a nice seat alongside them, however small, then I think we will have done our job.

CS: That’s a very humble mission.

WI: Well . . . that’s my hope!

Image: “Flight HS13” poster.

CS: Do you think there’s any region that you are going to look into that you haven’t yet, or that is specifically lacking?

WI: Absolutely, yes. Right now, we are mostly Northern European, Eastern European, Latin American. And that we plowed very successfully. We are looking to Japanese pieces now, and to China. I personally like Turkish drama; I think there’s something unique, interesting, and very glossy made there. The problem I find with Chinese work, though, and sometimes with Korean and Turkish dramas, is that when they are successful, they run and run and run. So the run is eighty or one hundred or one hundred and twenty episodes, and American and UK audiences won’t commit to that. What I’m looking at now is either their cinema or their miniseries—stuff that’s conceived of as a sort of three-hour movie, that is also, by the director, broken into three hours. I am looking at acquiring what they would consider mini-mini-miniseries. I don’t think anyone in the UK or the US would have the time and the ability to commit to enormous lengths like that.

CS: No, which is partly why I’ve never seen The Americans or The Wire after missing them when they started . . .

WI: Because you know that there’s too much of it, and so it puts you off

CS: I know that I’m probably going to like it, but then I have eighty hours of it.

WI: Correct.

CS: And, I’ve always remembered fondly how we used to have miniseries in America. Not that they were amazing—in fact most of them were kind of terrible.

WI: In my mind, six to thirteen is the perfect number for a season. It’s like a novel. Thirteen installments; you can do in four nights. And then, I’m more than happy to do season two and three, and carry on from there.

CS: Just to go back a bit, you mentioned translation already—how you do it—but are there any problems that you encounter with the process?

WI: Not really. The only challenge is sometimes there are super crazy, but understandable, purists, who will write to the Sunday Times and kind of go, That one sentence, you said home, but actually they meant house. But the challenge sometimes is to condense the phrase, because this is not literature, and we have to remember that. Yes, Les hommes des l’ombre is a beautiful title, but something like Spin fits better. Because The Men in the Shadow is a slightly more generic title, whereas Spin is about being a spin doctor. So sometimes it is just about making that culturally economic decision, where you go, This is an audiovisual work, and it’s a lot like cinema. And, yes, that French phrase is beautiful, but if I try to translate it into the English language and it filled three pages, people would miss what is going on onscreen. That’s why you have translators who completely understand their job, and they do it for top directors and top cinema. So they know never to damage the beauty of a script for sure. And also, I think subtitles now, with Narcos and stuff, have become so embedded in the mainstream imagination. Up until two or three years ago, the mainstream audience would have thought, Hmm, it’s a bit of an effort. But now you go, It doesn’t really matter—you want a great story.

Yes, that French phrase is beautiful, but if I try to translate it into the English language and it filled three pages, people would miss what is going on onscreen. That’s why you have translators who completely understand their job.

CS: It’s kind of a calling for using the very technology through which we’re being bombarded with content but which is also the only way to see these shows, for most of us. But you’re also installing that personal element into it that people still need.

WI: You are completely right. Which is why I think it is beautiful and amazing—and I can hardly work my phone, to be honest. But I think it’s beautiful that technology has gotten to a point where it allows the super-niche to flourish. I’ve now become a member of this organization which is this little palace in Venice which houses the national French organization for the rediscovery of French Romantic opera from the 1870s to the 1920s. So there, they are almost like archaeologists of lost operas from Massenet, Gounod, and others, and you go, Oh my god, these people search archives and libraries to reconstruct scores, and they record them, and you can listen to stuff that was lost. This is the era of the super-niche. The super-niche becomes super-mainstream—through the technology, as you were saying. If you start summing up people who like a genre around the world, it becomes a massive crowd. So you are speaking to a global audience, which makes your former niche very mainstream. I think there’s something fascinating about how technology is empowering pockets of culture to completely blossom where they would have been lost—of high culture as well—where they would have been crushed by the commercial logic, only ten years ago.

CS: You get that with food, too. I’ve found that sometimes there is no one at one of these major dining establishments around the world who is from the place where it exists. Everyone else has the reservations because we’ve all planned three months in advance. 

WI: That’s extraordinary! But actually, you’ve become a foodie, and you’ve researched that mozzarella in advance—you found that it’s made there and it cost virtually nothing. I think that knowledge is empowerment in every way. I think that technology, and broadcasting technology, is fostering that even further. That is my hope, anyway.

CS: It’s not a partisan act. It’s populist, like you say.

WI: It’s the most inclusive thing in the world. Who wouldn’t want to go to a restaurant in Rome and eat something fantastic for six euros? This is the same logic. This is $6.99 a month, but you can eat the best dramas the world has to offer.

CS: And even within the programming you curated especially for us, the viewer gets to choose.

WI: Completely. But also, why would you ever watch four thousand hours of material to find out what’s good from Argentina or the Czech Republic? That would be impossible. That’s where curation becomes significant. This is very much my curation, my perspective, and there will be others who will do something else. But if you like the stuff I’m choosing, and the cultural reference points and the parameters that I’m using, then you are quite likely to like the majority of what’s on offer. But also, it happens conversely now through social media in the UK. We’ve got fans who write in, Oh, I’ve just come back from somewhere, I watched this, it’s amazing, Walter, check it out! And if I check it out [and like it], and the rights are available, then I’ll include it. So I like the fact that it’s a dialogue. It’s not a sort of corporation that churns out subscriptions and sells them to make money. It really is a sort of cultural enterprise in many ways. It’s to disseminate passion and knowledge about great stories. That drives the entire thing. It’s the beginning and the end of it. That’s why, when sometimes people ask, Will you get to the point where it’s too big and you hire an acquisition executive?, I go, No, never. Because the moment you hire an acquisition executive, you fail the brand. I need to be in a position where I can continue. And it’s the love of my life anyway, so it’s not an effort for me. I need to watch, and digest, and select, and love this, because if I don’t curate this, then who is the curator? And then I’m a charlatan. And I need to be able to defend every single hour of television, so that if you are saying, What were you thinking? This six-hour thing is awful, I need to be able to say, I know what you are saying, but I loved it, because I watched it and I know what I am talking about. I’m not saying it as an ego thing; I’m saying it as a purist. If you come to the restaurant because of the chef, they need to cook. And if they don’t, then it’s a branded restaurant, and it’s completely different. 


Further Reading:

Behind the Film: “More Than Sbarchi—The African Diaspora in Italy” by Iman Childs

Three Translators Respond to “Arrival” by Susannah Greenblatt

And the Screenplay Goes To . . . by Susan Harris

(Bleep), You (Bleeping) (Bleep): Dubbing American Films into Canadian French by Robert Paquin

Published Apr 4, 2017   Copyright 2017 Charles Shafaieh

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