With 236 episodes each lasting 26 minutes, Un si grand soleil is becoming the new French TV everyone is talking about. Produced by France Télévisions and broadcast on TV5MONDE, the series set in Southern France is watched by 4 million viewers every day.
After a 17-year absence, Claire Estrela is back in her native city of Montpellier. But a grisly event involving a childhood friend sets off a dramatic chain of events. Forced to prove her innocence, Claire has to face up to a number of long-buried family secrets. Mysteries, machinations, and love stories combine under the sun of Southern France. Interview with the screenwriter Olivier Szulzynger.
France-Amérique: The series is set in Montpellier in Southern France. Why did you choose this region?
Olivier Szulzynger: Montpellier is one of the youngest and most modern cities in France, home to many university students and whose population has tripled in 50 years. It seemed logical to depict our current era through the story of this future-facing metropolis. There is a variety of different atmospheres, as the leading architects of the 20th century designed buildings just a few minutes by tram from the old part of the city.
What’s more, Occitanie is a traditional region renowned for its vineyards, easy-living, and olive trees that make it very similar to a typical Provençal setting. The landscapes are very diverse and offer a mix of the seafront and the heart of the countryside. With 300 days of sunshine per year, in a way it is the French version of California or Florida! The France Télévisions network is even in the process of establishing studios here to film series and make it into a little French Hollywood.
What are the codes of this daytime soap opera?
Un si grand soleil is part of the soap opera genre that began in the United States. These daytime series feature several leading characters and combine suspense, love stories, and societal themes. Viewers follow the daily lives of a community of 25-30 people. This format arrived later in France with Plus belle la vie, in the 2000s. The way we tell stories in our soap opera is therefore heavily influenced by the art of U.S. series and the biggest hits such as Desperate Housewives.
The first storyline is based on two characters: Claire, a nurse, and her son. Through their eyes, viewers will discover a complex world presented over several months and via successive plots. The characters in the series are mirrors held up to the audience. Viewers have to be able to recognize themselves. We are also trying to respect the coherence of each person’s story, despite their numbers and differences.
The series was filmed in 2018, but what really makes it modern?
We have very recent production tools that enable us to achieve a similar image quality to that of prime-time series. Some 60% of the scenes are filmed outside, which makes the series different from other soap operas that are usually filmed on fixed, indoor sets. We are the only series to use so many green screens and real settings. We have built a bar on the beach, filmed in a former high school, and even rented a number of villas.
Filming outdoors means we can illustrate the diversity of the storylines. Our work is not confined to a studio, and each plot can explore a new business or environment, for example. In technical terms, we are in the same league as the United States.
Which sides of modern France are you hoping to depict?
We recount how French people live, laugh, and love on a daily basis. As Montpellier is a melting pot, it offers a diverse, cosmopolitan vision of France. The storylines also take place in several key regional sectors, such as the cosmetics and olive oil industries.
Societal themes are showcased, with a focus on the organic question and the issues raised by the #MeToo movement. We are trying to depict a period of time and take major changes into account — but without making comments on current affairs. The overall story is also very universal. Whether in Europe or the United States, people’s daily lives and worries are similar to those of our characters.
What are you trying to offer international audiences?
Broadcasting in the United States is a way of sending a “postcard” to French expats while also tackling clichés and making Americans want to discover this part of France. After all, tourists are more familiar with Nice than Montpellier! The image quality and the Mediterranean setting lend a chic, exotic aspect, and the storylines highlight challenges experienced by both European and American audiences.
=> The series Un si grand soleil is broadcasted on TV5MONDE Monday through Friday at 12 p.m. (EST).