Based on the real-life experiences of doctor (and series creator and director) Thomas Lilti, Interns (Hippocrate) is a hospital drama with definite je ne sais quoi. Skillfully mixing realism with a modern, high-octane style, the series follows the lives of young interns struggling to make their way and deal with the emotional rollercoaster of their profession. Timeless themes become strikingly relevant against the backdrop of a health crisis that has reinforced one of the show’s central tenets: that it is crucial we take care of those who take care of us.
Interview with Thomas Lilti (series creator and director) and Françoise Guyonnet, Executive Managing Director TV at STUDIOCANAL
TV France: Before hospitals became the setting for your films (Hippocrates, Irreplaceable, The Freshmen) and series, they were your workplace – as a doctor. How did your experience as a doctor feed into the series and its characters?
Thomas Lilti: I have always dreamed of telling the story of a hospital, with all its pain, doubts, joys, mistakes and anguish. The film created the basis for the series: telling the story of the hospital from the point of view of young interns. I wanted to show the raw reality of the hospital context and the young people that fight to keep it going. This choice, already present in the film, was well received enough to take us all the way to the Cannes Film festival. After that, the series became a work in its own right, taking on a scope that the film just did not have. I could not have written and directed Interns without my years of experience as a doctor. I lived through or witnessed almost everything that happens in the series. I took inspiration from my own experiences and those of my colleagues. The character of Arben, for example, is based on a foreign doctor I knew and who taught me a lot.
TV France: The series’ realism has made it a success with viewers and critics alike. What was behind this artistic choice? How did you strike the balance between fiction and reality?
Thomas Lilti: My goal was to make a series that was ultra-realistic, political and also fictional – set “behind the scenes” in a hospital. After the success of the first season, I was pleased to see that I had found the right mix of fiction and truthfulness. The combination of these two elements is one of the series’ strengths. It is entertaining but also prompts us to think about the world in which we are living. However, this success put me under a lot of pressure for the second season. I was scared of disappointing people, of not having anything new to tell, of just dragging out my characters like any series could. So I took time to think about what I considered really essential – and that was to tell the story of healthcare workers, a truly unique profession.
TV France: In season two of Interns, you transport viewers from the Internal Medicine department to the Emergency Room. How did this change of setting impact the series and how it was made?
Thomas Lilti: Season two took a long time to write as I wanted both to pick up with characters where we had left off but also to add something new. I wanted the new season to be more extreme, with greater tension. That’s why I chose to set it in the Emergency Room. The setting enabled me to step up the pace for season two. Everything moves faster, the hospital is flooded, and the characters find themselves under water. Season two is like a disaster movie in which all the characters have to fight to save the hospital but with very meagre resources. When these characters are faced with such adversity, they reveal their true selves. We see their weaknesses and strengths as individuals, but we also see that the best way out of the situation is to work together. The Emergency Room setting also allowed us to make the series more political and rooted in reality as the emergency department reflects the world around the hospital. When the world suffers, so too does the department. The current health crisis has brought the central message of the series home to us all: we have to take care of those who take care of others.
TV France: Interns is an intense and fast-moving experience for viewers. How did it feel during filming?
Thomas Lilti: On set, the actors have to strike the right note. I’m willing to do a dozen takes of the same shot to allow them to really let go. Often I show them the gestures they reproduce through habit, I give them the time to do it again and again. After hours of filming, they are exhausted – just like the characters they are playing. That helps them find the truth of the situation. The objective of our filming style was to stay as close as possible to characters’ movements and faces. We want to understand what characters are feeling at all times, and it has to stay pacey. So, the camera is always moving, like the characters, and in the rare moments when the pace slows down, the viewer experiences it as a breath of fresh air. The other essential aspect of the series is the work of all the extras, and there are a lot of them in season two. The corridors are always full, and that is very truthful. The series was filmed in an actual hospital, in a part of the building that is no longer in use. The presence of real doctors and nurses had a big impact on the atmosphere on set.
TV France: Medical dramas are very popular but also a very competitive genre. What makes Interns unique among international series?
Françoise Guyonnet: The strength of the series is that it offers a “behind-the-scenes” glimpse of hospital life as it really is, showing all its day-to-day difficulties, but also the staff’s dedication and passion. Interns questions what we mean by “care” and deals with universal themes like life, illness and death, but also the notion of vocation and the commitment of these young health workers. Interns is both very realistic and fictionalized: the emotional intensity the characters face prompts them to create close relationships and rise to ever greater challenges.
TV France: Is the health crisis proving to be an advantageous or disadvantageous context in which to bring out a medical series?
Françoise Guyonnet: The health crisis had a mixed impact on production. In March 2020, the first lockdown put filming on hold, and we only started up again three months later. This obviously created numerous problems, but it allowed Thomas Lilti to work and help out his ex-colleagues and also let him adapt the plot of the second season, rooting it in the reality of the pandemic. Attempting to show the difficulties faced in hospitals without factoring in the COVID crisis would not have been possible. In fact, the crisis actually served to enhance a key concept in Interns: the idea that to take care of everyone’s health, we have to take care of our healthcare workers.