Operation Sabre: The creators talk
BY Yako Molhov
In April, the Serbian thriller Operation Sabre had its world premiere at the Canneseries Festival and also won the Special Interpretation Award of the Festival for its superb cast. In two interviews, CEETV talks to the creators and top cast of the production which is distributed internationally by Beta Film which will take the show to the upcoming NEM Dubrovnik.

Today, we publish Yako Molhov’s conversation with creators and directors Goran Stanković and Vladimir Tagić and producer Snežana van Houwelingen from This and That Productions, joined by Beta Film’s Veronika Kovacova.
Snezana van Houwelingen

Veronika Kovacova

Goran Stankovic

Vladimir Tagic

Goran, Vladimir you are the creators and directors and Snežana you are the producer of the political thriller series Operation Sabre. This is the name of the Serbian police operation in 2003 to find and arrest those responsible for the assassination of Serbian PM Zoran Đinđić, still an important figure in contemporary Serbian history 21 years after his assassination. How was the idea about the series born and how long did it take to complete the project?
Vladimir: The topic was brought up by RTS in 2019, after we finished our previous joint project, the series Morning Changes Everything. This series was highly successful, and RTS wanted us to continue our collaboration. It took some time to find the right approach to this complex topic and to find the right angle from which to tell the story. In order to do this in the best possible way, Goran and I, along with the screenwriters, had to dedicate ourselves thoroughly to research, and this required time and energy. The entire process lasted for 4 years, including financing, and we started filming the series in the spring of 2023, completing it entirely at the beginning of this year."

When will Operation Sabre premiere on RTS? Has the series already been sold to other Balkan countries?
Snežana: Operation Sabre will be shown on Radio Television Serbia for the first time during the upcoming fall program session. We are optimistic that it will capture the attention of a wide viewership and become a highly anticipated broadcast, slated for the end of October and the beginning of November. The final scheduling decision rests with RTS. Many Balkan countries are interested in Operation Sabre. Talks are happening, and we are hopeful that discussions will progress swiftly now after winning the Palme at Canneseries.

Operation Sabre had its world premiere at the recent Canneseries festival where as you mentioned it won the Special Interpretation Award for The Cast. What was the feedback after the premiere, what did the critics and the audience liked the most about the series?
Goran: It was a huge privilege to premiere the series at Cannesseries, and to screen it in the Lumiere theatre. We were positively surprised that so many people reacted very emotionally to the story and managed to identify with our characters. The thing that everyone reacts to is definitely the cast and the verité approach of acting that we were all striving for. The award we received is a huge accomplishment for the whole team. Although the story is complex and it dives into a very intriguing part of our local history it succeeded to transcend all the facts and speak directly to the audience. I think that people that do not know a lot about this part of Balkan history will be drawn in to find out more, while those who are familiar with this topic will get to see a larger picture of these events.

I am not Serbian myself but 21 years after the events I still vividly remember the video of the two secret service BMWs rushing thru Belgrade traffic after the shooting and Đinđić's quote about the system which you use verbatim in the series and in fact the trailer starts with it. As with other series based on real events, how much of Operation Sabre is fiction and how much is fact-based?
Vladimir: A large percentage of the series is based on facts and evidence we have gathered. We wanted to avoid speculation, unverified stories, and conspiracy theories, which, aside from sensational headlines, have absolutely no evidence to support them. It was important to be responsible towards the truth; it would be immoral to approach such a sensitive topic differently. However, it was also not possible to convey every detail exactly as it happened. By sticking to this principle, we would never have been able to tell the story into a meaningful dramatic whole that could be clearly told, as it is simply too complicated. With the help of the main characters, who are fictional, we actually found our angle and managed to convey our idea about these events by handling the past responsibly while also shedding light on what would come after the Sabre and what we still experience to this day.

The story is told through the perspective of a journalist, a police inspector and a criminal. Why did you choose these three characters in particular, how are their personal stories intertwined with the assassination?
Goran: While Vladimir and myself were coming up with the concept of the show we knew that we were not going to have the politicians be the center of our story. We wanted to find an angle where we could identify with our characters and to not be trapped between facts and trivia. So we decided that besides the Prime Minister Đinđić our main characters were going to be people whose lives were affected by this assassination. Very early on it became clear that media had a huge role in forming the public opinion of that time, and also the bravest journalists were very often women. So one of our main characters became Danica a female journalist trying to get to the bottom of this political murder. In order to understand how the biggest police operation in recent Serbian history Operation Sabre functioned we needed to have a police inspector as one of the leading characters. Besides him we wanted to understand how someone could have organized such an atrocious act at the beginning of the 21st century, so our fourth lead character became a young criminal working for the Clan behind the assassination. Through their eyes we form a mosaic of a year that marked a turning point in the social-political development of a country. As the story evolves their paths cross and the more they get closer to the truth, the more they become victims of a system they are trying to expose.

You were around 18 when the assassination took place. What are your personal memories of the event and how did they influence your writing?
Vladimir: I was quite carefree during this period of my life, and the assassination of Zoran Đinđić, in a way, woke me up. I began to actively engage with what was happening around me, and I vividly remember the feeling of helplessness, fear, and insecurity that we all collectively felt at that time. It was like an earthquake for us, and everything seemed to be turned upside down. I wanted to convey that feeling of despair and instability in the series; it was something that was crucially important to me from the beginning and something I didn't want to give up on—the feeling of chaos, real chaos.

Alongside fighting organized crime, Đinđić was a politician who stood for democratic values and European integration and helped dismantle Slobodan Milošević's regime. With Serbia's current pro-Russian stance, do you believe that his story told once more, for the first time in scripted form on TV, could influence younger politicians and the younger Serbian generation to walk into his footsteps? And did you have any concerns when shooting the series for choosing such a controversial topic?
Goran: Zoran Đinđić had an almost impossible task in front of him, to change a system that was corrupt for an entire decade. After only two and half years in office, he was assassinated. The show is definitely a reminder of how currently fragile democracy is in the entire world. It shows how hard changing a system truly is, but it also gives the urgency that changes have to be made. What makes this topic still controversial is that many of the participants of these events are still alive, it is a piece of collective history and it is still an open wound for our society. We hope that airing the show in Serbia this fall will be our contribution to coming to grips with this part of our history.

Operation Sabre is a Serbian-Bulgarian co-production, with This and That Productions partnering with Bulgarian prod co Agitprop on the project for Serbian pubcaster RTS; the Bulgarian National Film Center and Media Creative Europe also supported the series. There were earlier reports about a Croatian partner also being on board the series - Drugi Plan. Can you walk us through the process of setting up the partnerships and financing of the series, was it a complex one and did your win at the CineLink Drama pitch play a major role?
Snežana: The development and financing process of the series was long and complex. After Vlada and Goran (as directors and co-creators) and I (as the producer) of the series "Jutro će promeniti sve / Morning changes everything” successfully completed the broadcast, we received a call from our national broadcaster with a topic about Zoran Djindic. This was at the end of 2018. So, it took a full five years for Operation Sabre to see the light of day. For the first three years, our production company developed 8 episodes. This was preceded by extensive research and numerous interviews, as well as the study of archival material. In addition to Vlada and Goran, we collaborated with three more writers to ensure that the scripts reached the desired quality. The support from Creative Europe Media in 2019 was very significant as it allowed us to independently finance the development process. The award at CineLink in Sarajevo not only provided financial support but also brought greater visibility to the project, marking our first public appearance and announcement of working on Operation Sabre as still sensitive topic. The next milestone was the project's participation in the Midpoint workshop in 2021, which was extremely intense and highly beneficial in further developing the script, characters, and plot twists. We are grateful for the opportunity to collaborate with top professionals in the industry. One of the consultants at Midpoint was Nebojsa Taraba from Drugi Plan in Croatia. He immediately recognized the quality and international potential of the project and connected us with Beta Film as the distributor.

After Midpoint in early 2022, RTS officially entered into a co-production of the series as the majority investor. It was at that point that it became certain that the series would be realized. We had a plan to have a co-production with Drugi Plan, but at that time, the Croatian broadcasters were not in the best position for minority coproductions so despite all efforts there was no interest from Croatian broadcasters to significantly participate in the project. On the other hand, the Bulgarian National Film Fund has started supporting minority co-productions for TV series, which opens up the possibility for us to structure Operation Sabre with Agitprop as a minority Bulgarian co-production.

Finally, by the end of 2022, we began pre-production, and shooting started in early 2023. Since the subject matter was still sensitive and we weren't sure about the reactions we might face, we conducted the filming quietly with strict adherence to non-disclosure agreements (NDA). This approach provided our creative team and actors with peace of mind during the shooting process. Besides that, the substantial support from RTS and Director Bujošević significantly contributed to facilitating the smooth process of our shooting and successfully overcoming any challenges that emerged during the production period.

What is the budget of the series?
Snežana: The average budget in Serbia and the region for a period series is around 200 to 250K per episode. Although Operation Sabre was very demanding and ambitious, it did not have the budget we had hoped and planned for. In the end, with Drugi Plan's exit and lack of funding from broadcasters in Bulgaria (only 160K from the Bulgarian fund was secured), we ended up with a standard budget for local standards. However, this did not stop us as a team from giving our best and making the right production and creative decisions that improved the quality and raised the production value of the series.

Operation Sabre is distributed internationally by Beta Film. How did they come on board and what has been the feedback from international clients who have already screened the series? Which territories will be especially interested in the series in your opinion?
Veronika Kovacova: “We wanted to be a part of Operation Sabre because the series hits the right tones at the right time, unpacking events more than 20 years in the past, which could sadly happen in today’s world, too. 2024 has been dubbed “the year of the elections” by Times Magazine, The Guardian and many more since voting will take place in almost every major economy in the world. Given the current political situation not only in Europe, but the turmoil happening in almost every corner of the world, we expect Operation Sabre to resonate well with audiences all over the globe. Clients from Continental Europe are very interested as those countries are closest to the events of the series, but since this is a prevalent and global topic combined with gripping storylines and characters you can easily identify and feel with, Operation Sabre is a great example for a local story with global potential. The series was one of the highly discussed and requested topics at the Beta Booth at MIPTV and we received great feedback and interest overall. Winning Canneseries’ Special Interpretation Award for the superb cast is another great testament for the quality of the series and the standing ovation after the screening, which was visited by many buyers, also underlines the very successful week in Cannes for everybody involved.

Are you planning more co-productions with partners from the Balkans and the CEE region?
Snežana: Absolutely. Riding on the success of Operation Sabre in Cannes, Vlada and Goran are planning a new series that will naturally involve collaboration with countries in the CEE region as well as Western European countries. Besides that, This and That Productions has been developing the series Variola - Dark Spring for a couple of years, in which we are minority co-producers along with Kinorama from Croatia, while the project is led by Slovenian company Vertigo. It is a unique story inspired by a significant true event in our region, and we are excited about its progress and production start.

You can read Part 2 of the interview with the lead actors of the series here.

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