Anna Winger on Transatlantic: ‘I was inspired by a refugee crisis – I didn’t expect to work through another’
Anna Winger, best known as one of the creators of Deutschland 83, discusses the screwball comedies that shaped Transatlantic, why she wanted to tell Varian Fry's story, and more
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Netflix’s new historical drama Transatlantic tells the story of Varian Fry and Mary Jayne Gold, charting the formation of the Emergency Rescue Committee – a covert rescue operation in 1940 Marseilles helping artists, writers and other refugees flee Europe during WWII.
Showrunner Anna Winger, best known as one of the creators of Deutschland 83, recently spoke to NationalWorld about Transatlantic. She discussed what drew her to a period of history she’s always avoided dramatising, revealed which screwball comedies influenced Transatlantic, and explained some of the differences between producing a show for Netflix compared to a traditional television channel.
Winger then went on to talk about how both COVID lockdowns and the Ukrainian refugee crisis shaped the series, as well as discussing the possibility of her going on to direct as well as writing and producing – before explaining why actor-directors are some of her favourite people to collaborate with.
So, we’re speaking about a week away from the show being released. How are you feeling?
I’m really excited! I love the show, I love the actors. We had a wonderful weekend together, celebrating it, that for me was really restorative. You know, when [Winger’s previous show] Unorthodox came out, I never saw any of the actors, because of the lockdown. It was just so sad that they never got to see each other, I didn’t see them – when we celebrated the Emmys, I saw [director] Maria Schrader in a hotel room, but it was during the lockdown stretch, when I did every interview on Zoom. So, it was just very wonderful this weekend to be able to go to SeriesMania [a film festival in Lille] and celebrate together in a big group: everybody came back to Berlin, and we had a premiere here. That was really great.
Just to set the scene a little bit: what was your starting point with Transatlantic? When did you first encounter The Flight Portfolio, what was it that seemed worth adapting to you?
I knew the story of the Emergency Rescue Committee and Varian Fry from my father, I knew it already. After we had this year, when so many refugees moved to Germany and many of them to Berlin, everybody was highly engaged in helping them to resettle and involved in this emergency effort to integrate all these people who really need help. There was a large place where people arrived, kind of like the arrival station, that was downstairs from my office – which used to be in the Tempelhof Airport – so I was volunteering there a lot with my kids, helping women and children to get clothes and everything.
My older daughter said to me, like, well, these people are just like us, you know. People like us had to leave Berlin, and now these people are coming here for refuge. That was the beginning of my thinking about the cycles of history, you know? The ways in which this just keeps happening, and the refugee experience – the people that we met, they were just like us, you know, and they were just people who've been displaced from where they had been before. Thinking about that made me think about the Emergency Rescue Committee.
What I think is interesting about the story is – I mean, there's many things – but one thing is that you have these characters who would never have met otherwise. World events have had the result that these people are thrown together in an unexpected way, and it changes all their lives as a result. In this story, some of them are refugees and others are not, so it's a real mix all working together with a common goal. Even though they come from different backgrounds in terms of nationality, language, and class, there's a kind of magic that comes from being together. I thought that was really interesting about the Emergency Rescue Committee story and about Varian, bringing them all together.
I started to do research with the idea to turn it into a series – because I do think, by the way, that it's very useful sometimes to use history as a way to understand the present, you know, it can be difficult to write something on the nose about what we're experiencing while we're experiencing it – but then Julie's [Orringer] book [The Flight Portfolio] came out. I knew her through other people a little bit, so I reached out to her, and then I optioned the book because she had done so much research. Her book provides real insight into the mind of Varian Fry, so it was a great place to start – but because television shows are really different from books, we have to activate the characters differently.
We did a lot of research [of our own], just to understand what was happening in Marseille at that time. This whole story takes place in a slice of history when most of Europe had already become fascist, right? Italy was fascist, Spain was fascist, Northern France, Germany, much of eastern Europe, and the Nazis were bombing the hell out of Great Britain. Things were really not looking very good! In this last free zone, in the south of France, all kinds of resistance efforts were percolating at the same time, one being the Special Operations executive – which is to say British intelligence running non-British spies in to try and start resistance cells. It was also the early days of the French Resistance, much of which was initiated by people from the immigrant armies that had been released after the fall of Paris. So the ERC was not operating alone, there were a lot of other things happening at that time, it was really a rich terrain to bring all those different threads into the story.
You’ve spoken a bit about having previously avoided working on WWII set stories at earlier points in your career – how was it that you found your way into this on this occasion?
I didn't want to write a concentration camp scene. I didn't write Nazis marching down the streets. I feel like other people have done that. And, it's extremely intense – I live in Berlin, and I've made my own way through the local history, I've come to terms with the reality of all kinds of things that happened here myself where I've lived for over 20 years.
But the thing about this story to me was that it was about something more than just the Nazis, right? To me, it was about the ways in which people survived terrible experiences through relationships with each other. In that sense, it's kind of a celebration of being a human being more than it's a war story. It’s a celebration of what makes us human beings, and the ways in which all those things – like romance and sex and humour, and creativity and community, all these things – remind us that we're alive, even when things are very dark, and shine a light in the darkness.
I was really attracted to that, and I was writing it during the COVID lockdown – I don't know about you, but for me being at home, I was lucky to be with my family, and I was lucky to be able to work from home. But if I ever needed a reminder that the thing that really makes life worth living is other people, it was being faced with the possibility of never being able to work with other people again. For me, it was very sad: people don't get into filmmaking, if they don't want to be in a dirty pit with a bunch of other people at 3am. It's a very collaborative medium.
Well, that leads nicely into something else I was wondering. You’ve been working on the show for a while – through lockdown, like you were saying, even before it was first announced in September 2021 – so I’m curious how your understanding of the story, your perception of it and how you relate to it, might’ve changed across that time?
Yeah, I started working on it in the spring of 2020, into the summer of 2021 – in Germany, we still had a pretty serious lockdown for a long time here. In a funny way, the making of this show was kind of a celebration of what it's about, because for all of us to come out of lockdown and go to Marseille, as a really multinational group of people, spending a few months making something beautiful together, that was actually a real celebration of what we do.
Of course, like three days into it, the war in Ukraine started. This is a show about one refugee crisis, and I was inspired to write it because of another, but I certainly did not expect to be making it during a third. That was obviously very upsetting, and was really uncanny – surreal – to be shooting, you know, Walter Benjamin going over the guarantees, while there were people lined up at the Polish border trying to get out of Ukraine. The whole thing was just horrible; it gave us all a strong sense of purpose, certainly, but it was very disturbing, the ways in which these things just keep happening.
A more practical question, just on another note. Transatlantic is your second project with Netflix, and the first of an overall deal you have with them now. How does making a show for this streaming service compare to something like Deutschland 83, which was for a more traditional television network?
The real magic of Netflix is very simple as a creator, which is that it has this very direct relationship to the audience: it's so easy to use, and it exists all over the world. My people, wherever they are, they know where to find me. And that is magic, you know. I made Deutschland for like 150 different channels all over the world – it was a great show, I loved it, we put a lot of love into it, I think the audience that loved it loved it a lot – but it was extremely hard to find I still don't even know where to find it or how to tell people to watch it! So as a creator, of course, making something and putting on Netflix is great – there's no downside for me. I want to concentrate on making the stories, and making the work, and doing the best job I can with my team to make really special things. Putting it on Netflix so that it's as easy as possible for people around the world who are interested to watch it is everything to me.
Does it change the way you write at all, do you think? Say, for example, cliffhangers and episode structure – the knowledge that someone might watch the next episode of Transatlantic immediately vs waiting a week for Deutschland 83. Does that make a difference?
I think, structurally, episodic television always has kind of… No, I don't think so. I wouldn’t say, as a writer, I don't approach it differently than I did Deutschland. which was on Channel 4 once a week. Commercials, though, all that stuff? With Deutschland, I had no control – it was on without commercials on Amazon, but it was on with commercials in different spots all over the place. Right? Like on Sundance TV, it had one kind of commercials, and on Channel 4 it had another, it was very different in every place. I just think it's so much work to write something like this and to get it on TV, you just have to keep your focus on making the best version of itself. I try to think about those parts of that less.
What would you say are your big influences as a writer?
In this case, I'd say I have very clear influences. With Transatlantic, I was really looking at the movies that were made by people like me, who were exiled from Berlin in the 30s and 40s, who were making the films that people would have been watching at that time – people like Billy Wilder, Ernst Lubitsch, movies like Casablanca, The Great Dictator, To Be or Not to Be. These are movies that are using humour and romance and all the genre tools of entertainment in order to process all kinds of complicated issues. I had always loved those screwball comedies that dealt with the Great Depression and World War II, and this was my chance to lean into that style of fast-paced dialogue bringing a kind of levity to something dark in order to help deal with it and to bring people into a story.
I love genre mix: I think this show is a spy show that also has humour, and also a lot of romance. When I was making Deutschland, I spent a lot of time watching Hitchcock movies, and also 70s Cold War spy stuff, like Three Days of the Condor. In this case, I was really watching a lot of 30s movies and thinking a lot about that time. I thought a lot about what it was like for all these people who were in exile, who were so anxious about what was happening in Europe, to be writing shows and movies, and using their grief to positive effect in some way.
Before you were a writer, you were a photographer. Do you think of yourself as quite a visual writer? Do you think that’s shaped your approach?
I think very much I am, very much; I think I see the work before I can write it. I always think of myself as a photographer who writes. I wrote one novel, and I found it very difficult; then I found screenwriting, and I think I really took to it like a fish to water because in a way, it's writing in pictures.
It has the episodic, structural thing of a novel, but it's the visual first. For me, the collaboration with the cinematographer and the production designer, and finding the look and feel of the show, I think about that a lot. In this case, Transatlantic is referencing the style of all these old movies, set free from the studio – everything is shot on location, it's so gorgeous, as is the colour palette and all of these things. It’s beautiful.
As you’re saying that, I’m wondering: would you ever be interested in directing?
You know, people ask me that a lot, but at the moment I feel like I have my hands full being a writer and a producer. Since Unorthodox, I’ve produced things with my own company, which is called Airlift, and we are very focused on the ways in which we can make great projects efficiently and beautifully. The thing about TV is it really requires a few directors, because it's a lot of episodes. You end up changing directors a lot, and I think being the writer or producer who's that consistent voice across the material is, practically speaking, a lot of sense.
So, I don't currently have a strong drive to be a director; I think the performance piece of it is still kind of mysterious for me. I love to work with actors, but I also love to work with actor-directors – like Maria, obviously, I worked with her as an actress before she then directed Unorthodox. In this case, all three of the directors [on Transatlantic] were actors first. I just think the way in which actors bring each other to their performances is really magical.
Is there anything you’ve been watching and enjoying recently? Any recommendations you’d care to share with us?
I just watched a documentary that I thought was amazing – which you should see if you haven't caught it – called All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, about Nan Goldin and her activism against the Sackler family around oxycontin. It’s so good, it's by Laura Patras. Then, to be honest with you, I have a 13-year-old daughter, and I mostly watch TV with her at the moment, just because it's our thing, so I have watched a lot of Outer Banks. Which, by the way, is really well written! It's really the show that we both love, so we watch together. I think it has something for everybody.
Finally, just to wrap everything up: is there anything in particular you’d hope people take from Transatlantic, in terms of their experience watching the show?
I hope that people will allow themselves to enjoy it, and to sort of become a part of this – it's really very much an immersive world and community. It's true that it takes place in a very dark time, but it also is the chronicle of something beautiful that happens within that darkness. I think that people can lose themselves in it, in a good way; I hope people really stick with the characters and come into our world and enjoy it.
Transatlantic is available on Netflix from Friday 7 April. You can read more of our coverage of Transatlantic here, and find more of our TV interviews here.