Art & Design

“Winter Palace is a luxurious arena depicting the clash of cultures”

Cristina D’Agostino

By Cristina D’Agostino27 décembre 2023

The upcoming series "Winter Palace," a collaboration between the Swiss television channel RTS and Netflix, narrates the costume-laden saga of André Morel, a mountain hospitality adventurer. Morel takes a daring gamble in 1899 amidst the chilling Alps, believing that the opulence of his palace can attract the international bourgeoisie. Pierre Monnard, the series director, shares insights into the project.

Simon Ludders, Manon Clavel, Cyril Metzger and Pierre Monnard (director) from the Winter Palace series (©RTS /Laurent Bleuze)

Venturing into luxury mountain hospitality was a daring gamble successfully undertaken by Switzerland in the late 19th century. An epic tale woven with adventurers that Pierre Monnard aimed to bring to the screen, much like André Morel, the central fictional character in Winter Palace portrayed by Cyril Metzger. Inspired by figures like César Ritz, credited with conceiving the concept of luxury hospitality, the series, co-produced by RTS, Point Prod, Oble, and Netflix, chooses Belle Époque settings in the palaces of the Romandy region, Montreux heights, and the Swiss Alps. This backdrop serves to narrate the story of an English-speaking bourgeoisie seeking pure mountain air and exotic retreats, even in the face of the Alps' icy cold. In this arena, Monnard unfolds power dynamics, clashes of cultures, and social milieu confrontations. Although set in 1899, the series aims for contemporary relevance. Monnard's challenge is to captivate viewers well beyond Swiss borders, particularly engaging a younger audience eager for fresh tales of adventurers. The series is slated for release in 2024

In 2015, when the idea was first presented to you, what appealed to you?

Pierre Monnard. The allure of the hospitality industry fascinated me. Having observed the inner workings of many luxury hotels, I found parallels between the hotel business and film production. Both involve teamwork, creativity, adaptation, and trust in a somewhat audacious project—one must believe in it without certainty of success. I find this dimension very touching. Additionally, the history of luxury hospitality in Switzerland at the end of the 19th century is one of the nation's grand tales. It significantly elevated Switzerland's status, led by entrepreneurial adventurers who ambitiously constructed high-altitude buildings, such as the Caux Palace, where we are shooting, built in 1895—an incredible challenge.

Inspired by figures like César Ritz, credited with conceiving the concept of luxury hospitality, the series, co-produced by RTS, Point Prod, Oble, and Netflix, chooses Belle Époque settings in the palaces of the Romandy region, Montreux heights, and the Swiss Alps (©RTS /Laurent Bleuze)

During that time, European elites would spend their summers and winters in these hotels, relishing the pure mountain air and therapeutic thermal baths. Is this setting also a means of portraying a social tapestry?

Absolutely. A hotel is a magnificent stage for telling a story, a series. Various characters, including constant performers like André Morel, coexist. There are clients from specific social strata, and there's the staff, often from nearby villages. A genuine clash of cultures occurs. This richness serves as fertile ground for storytelling.

The preparation for this series must have taken a considerable amount of time. Could you elaborate on that?

I first heard about it in 2015 when Point Prod approached me with just an idea. Credit goes to Jean-Marc Fröhle, the series producer, for assembling a writing team and finding English author Lindsay Shapero. Then began the search for locations—a lengthy process. We visited countless luxury hotels across Switzerland, Italy, and Germany. A pivotal opportunity arose when the Vaudois Righi informed us of the postponement of their renovation works. Everything fell into place, aligning with the Caux Palace and the Hospice du Simplon for winter exteriors. It's an extensive logistical effort, involving over sixty people working on the series.

This story is deeply rooted in Switzerland. What would you like to showcase internationally?

While many people are familiar with Switzerland and its renowned ski resorts, few are aware that these establishments have existed for nearly 150 years, each a remarkable adventure to construct. We drew inspiration from César Ritz but collaborated with hotel history expert Evelyne Lüthi-Graf, a brilliant woman well-versed in industry anecdotes who even helped us for location scouting. Our goal was to create a series firmly grounded in our era. While we acknowledge some anachronisms and take liberties with history, our tone is humorous and comedic. Sometimes we are larger than life, while at other times, we scrutinize details closely. The aim was not to produce a César Ritz biopic but to draw from the best moments to craft our own narrative.

What is your perspective on the luxury of that era? Is it decadent and flamboyant?

Interestingly, my view on this evolved during location scouting. I initially imagined it as decadent and flamboyant, but upon closer examination, aside from photographs portraying society in magnificent settings, the comfort was rather rudimentary. Only grand communal spaces, like the ballroom where one had to be seen, were constructed like Hollywood productions. Activities were limited. This is where the invention of alpine skiing and the Winter Games come into play, aspects we also depict. In the series, the settings are extraordinary, but we introduce certain anachronisms. We use history as inspiration to tell our story without being confined by it.

Filming atmosphere at the Palace de Caux, above Montreux on the Swiss Riviera (©RTS /Laurent Bleuze)

Have you been approached by luxury brands as potential investors?

We have partnerships with luxury brands, including Swatch Group, primarily for period watches, such as André Morel's Longines watch. LVMH lends us costumes and trunks from its historical collection. The Lausanne Hotel School is also a partner. Cinema has always been a great platform for communication. Today, with Kering acquiring a major Hollywood talent agency (note: CAA), it's not a coincidence. Cinema remains the best way to captivate and promote luxury products, with larger-than-life characters on screen.

What resonance do you hope this series will find with the audience?

We aim to spark curiosity about the pioneers who built mountain hospitality day by day in a grand improvisation. The pace is exhilarating, the tone is burlesque, and the characters are vivid, almost like comic book characters. There are genuine, distinctive personalities. It's a contemporary approach that can appeal to a younger audience well beyond our borders.

Manon Clavel, one of the main characters in the Winter Palace series (©RTS /Laurent Bleuze)

Is this what caught the interest of Netflix?

Absolutely. Netflix produces in each country hosting its platform, including Switzerland. They seek stories deeply rooted but with broad appeal beyond borders. This project could only be told in Switzerland, with the potential to attract an international audience, allowing us to have both Swiss and international cast members.

This costume series is a first for you. Has it been challenging?

It's a very different organization, requiring significant resources and personnel. We spent a lot of time in Paris with Valérie Adda selecting costumes to imbue them with a certain modernity. For instance, the trio Hanktone symbolizes the punks of the era, with costumes inspired by the 1970s. Our specialists, well-versed in the spirit of each era, make this creative freedom possible. It's a constant game to determine how far we can push boundaries. Costumes serve as a true means of expression.

How is the collaboration with Netflix going?

It's going well. Netflix was captivated by the project when we presented the eight scripts. It was a turnkey project for them, and they didn't participate in the development. They supported us afterward, providing excellent feedback on the script. Our interactions are regular. They review the rushes and are often present on set. The relationship is cordial and not much different from what we experience with other channels like RTS or SRF. It's straightforward, offering promising prospects for the future. I hope we'll have more opportunities.

Manon Clavel, Pierre Monnard (director) and Cyril Metzger from the series Winter Palace (©RTS /Laurent Bleuze)

Thanks to the "lex Netflix," does Switzerland's cultural uniqueness shine better?

Certainly. Even before this law existed, I had the opportunity to produce a series offered on Netflix called "Neumatt," a Swiss German dialect series discussing the agricultural crisis. Today, Switzerland can compete in its ability to create films. In 20 years, the industry has become highly professionalized. We can produce significant projects like the "Winter Palace" series, where we shoot for 70 days with two parallel teams; we must deliver it in record time as it will be aired at the end of 2024. We hope the series finds its audience, determining the possibility of a second season.

When will you know?

The series will first be exclusively aired on Swiss television for six weeks and then on Netflix. Since the platform never discloses its figures, success in Switzerland will be crucial for a second season. Netflix likely won't wait for its channel's broadcast to make a decision.

Speaking of figures, only RTS has disclosed funding figures, amounting to 7 million. Can other figures be revealed?

I cannot disclose that information, but it is a substantial budget that stands up well against budgets of major French or European costume series airing on major television channels.

This seems like a significant opportunity for your career.

Certainly. Afterward, I quickly be moving on to a film: the biopic of Emmi Creola, the creator of Betty Bossi. A sort of Swiss "Mad Men," set in the world of advertising in 1950s Zurich. She was a communicator in a male-dominated world, fighting to assert her ideas. She did it so well that everyone believed Betty Bossi was a real person. It's a wonderful story that I'll be shooting this fall.

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