How to Make a Fake Country — ‘The Regime’ Style

It was important to creator Will Tracy that the country Elena Vernham (Kate Winslet) misrules in “The Regime” be as mercurial and as unknowable as she is; culturally, it needed to fit into both Western and Eastern Europe. There needed to be a sense of a long history in the design of the palace and Elena’s public image without dipping into actual world history. But the one thing Tracy was sure it didn’t need was a name.

“I didn’t have to bend myself into pretzel shapes to avoid coming up with a name. It just never, never occurred to me and never seemed necessary,” Tracy told IndieWire on an episode of the Filmmaker Toolkit podcast. “It seemed to add to the enjoyment and mystery of the show, that feeling of when are we, where are we?”

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The Regime” deftly balances which characters we feel close to by who feels the most unmoored. At the start, of course, it’s the hapless Corporal Zuback (Matthias Schoenaerts), dragged into Elena’s palace as part of the complex political maneuvering to placate Elena’s every whim. But most of the characters in the show at least get a moment of feeling astonished and adrift.

“Despite most of my career having been in television, I think of myself really having more of a movie-type mind in that whenever I think of ideas,” Tracy said. “I try to think of TV show ideas and then 20 minutes later I realize, no, that’s another movie idea, isn’t it? This could have been an interesting movie, maybe, if you isolate a bit of it, but [‘The Regime’] was the first idea that I had that felt like, ‘No, it’s a family of characters that we return to in a setting that we return to again and again and again.”

Utilizing the same set of palace rooms, the same offices, the same completely absurd cabinet meeting hall provided a structure that allowed Tracy and his writing team to create a rhythm and then deliberately juke this way or that to keep the audience off-balance. The approach was perfect for the story, but only for a limited series. Sitcoms are often in power as long as an autocrat, but there’s a sense of artificiality to them that would’ve ultimately destabilized particular comedic tone of “The Regime,” partly because the show is so vague on the details of the setting.

“You could have done a whole season on the civil war [in Episode 6]. You could have done a whole season on the annexation and the sanctions that result, or the coup and things falling apart. So I’m confident in my choice to make it a limited series,” Tracy said. “[On a TV show], you’re forced to start to answer some of these questions that, hopefully, when you watch the limited series, you’re not really that worried about.”

Kate Winslet in "The Regime:
‘The Regime’Courtesy of HBO

There are only a couple of alternatives, after all, to being just vague enough about a fictional place and moving too quickly with too many plot elements for the audience to really think much about where all those leopards actually came from. There’s being deliberately vague about the artificial nature of the setting, which can sabotage the character work a series wants to do, especially over a long run. Then there’s the all-in approach other fictional worlds that want to be taken seriously have chosen, with maps in the opening title sequence and a backbreaking amount of lore.

Both have their merits, but neither would’ve worked for “The Regime.”

“The problem is, when you put a name to these things, when you call [the fake country] Freedonia, even if you’re not meaning to, you find yourself lurching ever faster into ‘Duck Soup’ land and no matter how authentic you try to make the name sound, it’s going to sound a little silly,” Tracy said. “It reminds people of the artificiality if you put too much of that stuff onto it, whereas if you withhold some of that information from the audience, there can be more of a feeling of ‘Oh, I’m a fly on the wall of a real place and I don’t have all the information.’”

No matter what you call the country, “The Regime” proves that not having all the information as you watch people in power make blindingly shortsighted decisions for the most insecure and venal of reasons always feels real.

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