‘Totems’ Writer, Co-Creator on Crafting Spy Tale Amid Pandemic

Crossing borders under difficult circumstances has always been part of the deal for spies. But getting your cast and crew to do the same, during times of COVID, also became part of the suspense in completing the first two episodes of the Amazon Prime show “Totems,” which premiered at Canneseries TV festival this week.

Featuring an international cast, including Niels Schneider, Vera Kolesnikova, José Garcia, Lambert Wilson and Ana Girardot, the spy drama was mainly shot in Prague. The city provides a convincing substitute for East Berlin, where some of the story takes place at an action-packed scientific conference.

The story follows French scientist Francis Mareuil (Schneider) whose angular features play beautifully between the shadows, as he starts operating as a spy, just like his estranged nurse wife in Paris (Girardot).

While working for the French Secret Service and the CIA, Mareuil meets a Russian pianist (Kolesnikova), who has been forced to work for the KGB, after they cripple her hand.

“There is only one Berlin,” says the guard at Checkpoint Charlie, as Mareuil passes through to reach the scientific conference, and make contact with a Russian scientist for his new bosses.

There are people murdered in the hallway of his hotel which he watches through the keyhole. The KGB is following his every move. His new career involves interrogations, and secret conversations held on the streets of Moscow, or in a bugged hotel lift suspended between floors.

Like several other main characters, Mareuil has got a day job, but suddenly he’s pulled into Cold War politics.

Speaking to Variety at the Canneseries press lounge, the show’s writer and co-creator Olivier Dujols explains: “They are doing other things. They are working as a scientist, nurse, pianist, but suddenly without any training, they have to find the skills to operate as spies.”

Shooting took place in the Czech Republic, Spain and France. The rest was special effects.

“When we shot at Checkpoint Charlie, it was a parking lot,” he says. “Every building, even the busses, is full special effects. We had archive photos we relied upon.”

Some sets were created in Czech studios, including some of the apartments seen in the series, however. Others on the streets of Paris.

Reality Reflects Fiction as COVID Erects Barriers

“We are a show about borders,” he says, referring to the Iron Curtain. “To cross the border is the main obstacle. In reality, it was the main obstacle we had to face too. Depending on the COVID-related color of the country, you could go from one place to the next, as we were making this. Our actors were in different places including Russia.”

He adds: “In times of crisis, you see who are the good people. We were surrounded by really good generous people in our cast and crew, so in the end, every time we had a situation, we found a solution. We had many COVID situations. We had to stop shooting for a few days. We were supposed to shoot in Morocco but we could not do that, so we shot the same scenes in the south of Spain.”

The pressure was on his team to finish the first two episodes in time for the Cannes premiere.

“We just finished it, apart from the credits. We worked by block. We tried to do episodes 1 and 2, and then 3 and 4 and then 4 to 8,” he says.

It all began when Amazon asked if he would like to create a spy series for them.

“I began to work on the show before Prime Video existed in France, so the main people I was dealing with originally were in the U.S. and U.K. Then step by step the French team entered the scene,” he says.

He’s not a spy buff. “It’s not a passion. I prefer science fiction or fantasy as a spectator, but I like it because a spy show needs to be more clever, as a writer. To do it well, at some point, you need situations that allow that. It’s never black or white. The Cold War seems to be that, but it’s not at all. It’s all in nuances of gray. It’s that the information you need isn’t there. It’s on the other side. But to get to the other side you have to shake hands. You have to talk. To make friends. With people you don’t agree with at all. You put back the human side in everything. You are cunning but you are a cool guy. I love you,” he says.

“It is about social chameleons. They are not spies in the beginning. She’s a nurse. He’s an engineer. She is a pianist. They are really competent in what they do but they are not competent at all in the spy world. They have the capacity to adapt and be human. The connections they make are on the human side,” he says.

The key was to keep it real. “It has to be plausible. We tried to be sincere all the time. Use real artifacts and facts,” he says.

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