Film & TV

Interview: Walter Iuzzolino on Foreign TV Drama

Credit: Global Series Network/Channel 4

Foreign Television Drama as a Window Into the Rest of the World: Welcome to the Wonderful World of Walter Presents

Sinead McCausland

If you have watched an episode of the Spanish prison drama Locked Up, the German spy thriller Deutschland ’83, or, say, the French political thriller Spin, all available on Channel 4’s streaming service Walter Presents, you will be aware of the man behind each carefully picked television programme. This man is Walter Iuzzolino, and his innovative foreign drama streaming service has been a life-long passion for him.

Before the first episode of each programme begins, the titular Iuzzolino introduces the viewer to what he describes as the ‘glossy, lavish, [and] expensive programming that you would normally associate with HBO or Sky Atlantic.’ Sat in front of the camera centre-frame, Iuzzolino delivers descriptions of subtitled dramas from over twelve countries in passionate, emotive bursts of energy. By the end of each two-minute introduction, you want to begin watching the programme immediately. But, you’re also aware of the curator behind each and every programme, Iuzzolino himself. Unlike Netflix or Hulu, Walter Presents is not a faceless entity, with the thought behind every commission made palpable thanks to Iuzzolino’s passion.

When I spoke with Iuzzolino last Thursday to promote Walter Presents’ two screenings at the BFI and Radio Times Television Festival at BFI Southbank (more on that later), it was clear that he extracts genuine joy from what he does. Every sentence is full of excitement, with his pace picking up when describing shows such as ‘Spin,’ which he says ‘I absolutely adore and have a real passion for it.’

Most importantly, however, he sees Walter Presents as an opportunity to move away from the cultural restriction prompted ‘by the sort of wave of conservatism that is sort of sweeping across the whole west,’ with the streaming service instead acting as a ‘window into the rest of the world.’

Describing Walter Presents as a ‘really special, precious, grassroots type thing,’ the ethos of Iuzzolino’s foreign drama streaming service is one that is not just noteworthy, but extremely resonant to the political, social and economic climate we are living in. Iuzzolino cares for his viewership, noting how Walter Presents has ‘got a real personal touch and we can never lose that.’ This personal touch means that the programmes Iuzzolino has carefully selected, or ‘hand-picked,’ do not end once the credits of the final episode have been streamed, but instead live on in the conversations between Iuzzolino and his viewers. And what’s the main form through which this conversation takes place? ‘I’m on Twitter all the time,’ says Iuzzolino, ‘and I’m responding and answering to questions and I care very much about the community of viewers that love what we do.’ Despite the fact that Walter Presents is a successful and mainstream service (last year it had accumulated almost 18 million views), Iuzzolino believes people ‘come to this because they know it’s got a real personal touch, and we can never lose that, that personal connection.’

Merciless, premiering at the BFI Television Festival. Credit: BFI

Now, thanks to the BFI and Radio Times, this personal connection is being extended to the real world. On Sunday 9th April, the television festival’s closing night, Walter Presents will have its own two screenings. With a screening of a new and exclusive as-yet-un-aired TV programme as well as the premiere of a new episode of a returning series, there’s something for both familiar fans of Walter Presents as well as people looking for an introduction into the world of foreign drama. The idea behind the two screenings, according to Iuzzolino, is that he and his team would screen one returning show ‘that viewers knew and loved, but also that we’d introduce a completely different piece and do a bit of a Q&A’ with the titular curator. In this Q&A, Iuzzolino says he will discuss his ‘selection process and some of the highlights of the big stuff that’s coming up.’ One of these highlights is a Brazilian thriller, called Merciless.

Merciless, known as Dupla Identidade in Brazil, will premiere in the first screening, followed by a Q&A. The programme is a ‘really strong’ thriller about a serial killer, and in this sense it’s ‘slightly in the mould’ of American psychological crime drama Dexter as ‘it’s about a serial killer [who] hides behind a really lovely façade and is a bit of a prince charming.’ According to Iuzzolino, ‘it’s quite a subversive story because it’s told from the point-of-view of the serial killer and there’s no redeeming feature in him.’ The central character of the show, Bruno Gagliasso’s Brian Borges, works with politicians, with this position enabling him to infiltrate the police force and work with them. Iuzzolino sums up why you should watch the show in a single question: ‘the question is how far can he take it before they discover him?’ What’s more, with the Q&A, audiences will be able to ‘have more insight into’ how Walter Presents works, as well as the ‘big hits’ that have been selected to be shown on Channel 4’s services in the future.

The second screening features the return of Locked Up, a Spanish prison drama that follows Maggie Civantos’ naïve Macarena Ferreiro. Like the success of Deutschland ’83, which won an International Emmy after being aired on Channel 4, Locked Up proved the British viewer’s desire for something new. When Locked Up was available online, it ‘had millions of streams [and] did incredibly well,’ with Iuzzolino drawing attention to its difference from the more familiar foreign crime dramas: ‘it’s very different from Scandi-Noir, so it’s brought, I think, a completely different flavour to the UK from what we were used to.’ The episode being screened at the festival is the first of the series, and ‘it’s an exclusive, no one will have seen it before. It won’t have even launched on Channel 4,’ with this exclusive representing a turning point for Walter Presents as it’s ‘the first time that fans can enjoy a little sneak peak at what the series will be like,’ creating a stronger relationship between viewer and curator. The series’ leading actress Maggie Civantos will also attend the screening in a conversation with Iuzzolino and the audience.

Locked Up. Credit: Global Series Network/Channel 4

Ultimately, the Walter Presents screenings at the festival provides not only what Iuzzolino describes as a ‘genuine introduction to what this is and how it came about,’ but gives Iuzzolino a ‘very nice opportunity to interface myself and the whole brand with an audience, really.’ Through getting to know the curator, the Walter Presents service is distanced from executives that ‘just watch and buy randomly because they think it might fit the brief.’ It’s clear this is a territory Iuzzolino does not want to tread, with his concern being on the quality and content of the programming over how many streams it can get in a day. He says, ‘I think it’s a very important thing to keep that purity and that logic of real curation and real hand-picked stuff,’ admitting that viewers ‘will not like everything,’ but that’s the point because the streaming service is ‘a much more bespoke type piece and I think that […] if it [the success of Walter Presents] keeps happening, [it] will be because of this point-of-difference that this is genuinely hand-picked and therefore unlike anything that’s out there.’

With the success of Walter Presents proven in the UK by its festival premiere, the streaming service has now arrived overseas in America, having launched on the 16th March. Iuzzolino says that they had always intended Walter Presents to launch internationally because their ‘ambition was to be a global service. [The] very nature of the programming translates’ worldwide. When I asked Iuzzolino about the lack of American commercial success with the recently Oscar-nominated foreign films Toni Erdmann and Elle, and how this would compare with his specialised foreign drama streaming service, the curator replied with a response that focuses on the aspects that may deter audiences from the service (for example subtitles), proving that these can be overcome as proven by the British audience. ‘There is a slight prejudice about subtitles in that you have to overcome it,’ says Iuzzolino, ‘but actually if you do it for three minutes then you’re into the story.’ Rather than seeing these subtitles as a hindrance to the viewing experience, Iuzzolino sees the effort as a reward, as, ‘like I say with everything in life, if you work hard at something you’re going to love it more and it’s going to reward you more.’ For him, reading and watching is ‘a more intimate experience; it’s almost like it’s between cinema and novel and it fuses those two. And so, when you watch an hour of this, this feels really special […] [because] you can’t go into the kitchen and cook, […] you have to sit down, and watch it.’

It’s important to note that film and television are different forms, too, with Iuzzolino recognising that with shows such as the ‘HBO miniseries Big Little Lies, it’s got Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern.’ These ‘mega-mega-Hollywood stars’ wanting to be in a small TV series is proof that the ‘transition is now complete, that the reverse is true,’ that the majority of complex roles lie in television and this period of Renaissance. In fact, there’s more of a comparison to be drawn between television and novels. ‘I think that the greatest thing I’ve always brought from my sort of old University days,’ he says, ‘when I was doing Literature and Victorian stuff, is I think the greatest art always comes at a juncture point between real skill and artistry and commerce.’ He agrees that shows like Locked Up are proof that television can be sophisticated works of art with great cinematography yet still provide entertainment, saying ‘of course you can perfectly enjoy your Fellini and Bergman and your European cinema,’ which Iuzzolino has an appreciation for. But, ‘it’s relatively easy to make art for art’s sake and to speak to people or to just do something for yourself. I think it’s much harder to make something of real breadth and scope but make it beautiful and well crafted, and I think that hopefully these programmes have proven that it’s much bigger than a small, elite clique that enjoy a certain type of cinema.’

Iuzzolino sees the similarities between the ‘big commercial stuff’ commonly seen on platforms like HBO, such as Sex and the City or True Detective, and the serialised novels of Charles Dickens or Wilkie Collins. He brings up an example of readers storming New York’s harbour in 1841, with fans of Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop not able to wait to find out if their beloved character had died. For Iuzzolino, he remembers ‘thinking this was so fun and hysterical, that actually there was a riot, […] I remember thinking this is so interesting, when you create a relationship with your viewers of such urgency that they’ve got to have it, it’s too important to them.’ He recognises that while a show like Locked Up is ‘a great entertaining piece, […] the story is quite an elegant story about family and loyalty, and how society is constructed within a prison.’ Much like how ‘these big Victorian pieces were fun commercials’ that are now studied at universities and are ‘great classics that shaped a generation,’ Iuzzolino believes ‘these box sets are the great classics that will shape how we’re told stories right now.’

And it seems Walter Presents is not far from being in the same league as these serialised Victorian novels, with Channel 4’s Chief Creative Officer Jay Hunt describing Walter Presents’ viewing experience to the New York Times as if it’s like ‘someone recommending a book to you, a book they love, a book that has shaped them.’ For Iuzzolino, his service ‘feels very much like that,’ saying ‘I never do something randomly that would fill the slot. It betrays the principle of what we’re doing.’

It’s clear Iuzzolino’s viewers are of importance to him, as he praises the ‘sophisticated market’ of America as well as the ‘curiosity’ of the British audience. Iuzzolino says he is ‘forever grateful by the viewers’ desire for new, and for the untested. And I hope that long may that continue because, as I said, the world is going through a very sort of bizarre phase’ culturally and politically. He notes the political challenges right now, but that ‘this is the best time for people to ask interesting questions and to be more curious than ever.’ The success of Walter Presents proves what Iuzzolino describes as the ‘outward looking’ nature of Britain. Whilst the programmes of Walter Presents are diverse in their nature, it’s important to remember that the audiences are, too. And through both the diverse audience and programmes, Iuzzolino hopes ‘that in a small way this contributes to that traffic of ideas of openness and sort of liberal open-minded cultural exchange, which, I think, is at the root of anything of any value in life.’

The Walter Presents Exclusive Screening of Merciless, as part of the BFI & Radio Times Television Festival, is from 7-9th April, BFI Southbank.