Family Secrets is one of the most talked about, followed and eagerly anticipated series. It has hooked both the viewers who does not normally watch TV and the viewers who are seeking for different things. In every episode it almost plays a chess match and make the audience a part of the story. We had a long conversation about Family Secrets with the screenwriter Sema Ergenekon and the director of the series, Ali Bilgin.
Let’s go back to very beginning. How did Family Secrets start?
Sema: It actually started when Ali messaged me and said, “Sema, I’m thinking about making a legal series”. I was already thinking about doing the same during the pandemic. I told him I can sent him what I already wrote. At the beginning we named it “Competition”. Since we both leaned towards the same thing without even talking, we found a common ground. While I completed the first part for “Competition” we started to do the research such as going to court hearings and meeting with lawyers. Then the story evolved, it came to a point of having a slightly harsher, more different story and finally Family Secrets were born. Ali and I carried out the process together from the very beginning.
Ali: There were some things we loved in “Competition”, but it didn’t completely resonate with us. Then Sema said, “I have something else in mind, give me a week or so to send it to you.” Kerem Çatay was also involved in the process for making the series. Sema sent her draft and while I was reading the script I thought I should go to Kerem right away and ask him if he read it yet. This was in January. From January onwards, we started working on the series in a different, more serious sense.
So let’s talk about the process from January until the first episode aired. There is prosecutors, Pars and Ilgaz; and there is Ceylin who is a lawyer. The story of Family Secrets started with a detective story but it has evolved a lot from there. We now know who the killer is but now there is a new murder, different crimes and new enigmas.
Sema: Ali and I are so clear and on the same page. But of course Kerem had some hesitations as a producer reflex. I don’t think there has been a detective drama series on TV yet that starts with a murder and moves on from there. There was concerns about whether this would scare away the viewers and whether they would like it. And when the story started to move a little more towards a family drama, Ali and I said no, this is a detective drama and it has to be accepted the way it is. I am glad we showed our determination. I think we are all very happy with the final result.
Ali: We thought if we’re going down, we go down from here. Because there is a reflex in producers, there is a tendency to buff the sharp edges to appeal to everyone. I think both Sema and I were in the positions to take the risk. Kerem Çatay also trusted our instinct and supported us. Yes there is a detective storyline but our main goal was the tell the domestic story. I liked that aspect the most, and I even expressed this many times during the channel interviews. There is a detective plot in the background, but I think we have done a job that goes deep in family relationships. In fact, let’s break down the concept of “sacred family” and question it; everything that happens in the family should be talked about, questioned, even if it is the parents who made the mistake. We also made a legal drama and we need to defend justice for all. Yes, it is a detective story, but there is always a confrontation between father-son and mother-daughter. That’s why the family side was also very strong. These are our favourite parts anyway.
Sema, the most important crime writers/screenwriters in nordic noir write for only 40-50 minutes, let’s talk about writing 150 minutes, an impossible thing for a detective series.
Sema: I feel it very deep in my heart. Sometimes I’ll do the math and I’ll say “okay, I wrote 16 episodes, each episode could be divided by 3” and I think about how many seasons I worte in total.. It’s very nice to accomplish this in TV but it is also very challenging. There have been times that I’ve written several shows at the same time but I never felt this exhausted. Crime drama is a very difficult genre to write for national TV. It doesn’t matter how prepared you are because when I’m writing I have to act like a detective and a lawyer as well as a screenwriter. I just got off a call with the director of Public Security Branch to see if I could do this or that about a evidence. You are constantly trying and you tart to think like a detective. It’s very difficult but very rewarding at the same time.
Let’s talk a bit about the casting process. You definitely have a great cast, everyone portrays their characters really well. Did you decide the cast together?
Ali: I was considering some actors I liked based on my intuition and feelings but Kerem Çatay, Sema and I went through the whole casting process together. We had some question marks but we were very pleased with the end result. When we were shooting the pilot I was confused from time to time whether it was “beautiful” or “realistic”. Because I feel like I was not doing much while I try not the spoil the realistic aspect. I was also nice to have a balance chemistry within the cast.
I think the use of space and art direction is also very realistic and good.
Ali: What we really prioritized the most was to keeping it realistic. We visited courthouses with our cinematographer and decided not the change anything while shooting in the prosecutors’ rooms. It’s very plain but this is the reality of it. At first we seperated the colour codes of both Kaya and Erguvan family. We kept the boy’s family more blue and the girls’ was in more pastel tones. We agreed on not making it feel very dark and depressive. We discussed this with Pınar too. We wanted to get rid of that darkness and turn her into a strong woman that she is. We recently had a hospital scene that was total of 45 pages
Sema: But I never got that feeling of darkness while watching that scene.
Ali: Kerem, Sema and I, we always keep in contact with each other. At some point we realised that reality aspect of it made us more comfortable. When we saw that this whole story is being watched and getting good ratings, it gave us strength. We realized our intuition was right. Ratings are very important in that matter.
Family Secrets has high ratings and it is the most talked about topic the next day. I don’t think there was a TV series everyone from different cultures and tastes seem to love for a long time now.
Sema: Yes, it is. Family Secrets is loved by from those who never watch TV to those who only watch them on digital platfroms. Especially young people! It makes me so happy that younger people, university students watch the show. It has recieved two awards lately, both from universities. It’s amazing.
Sema, there is a lawyer searching for his brother’s murderer in Family Secrets and there is the Ilgaz-Ceylin love affair. Ali summarised it very well just now, revealing the family in all its reality without blessing it and making them come to terms with it continues as a main strand in the story. On the one hand, new mysteries are added. And while writing all this, you also address social issues. What do you pay attention to when balancing all these layers in the story?
Sema: I think there’s a voice inside us somewhere. For example, I write and Ali says, “Is the love a little too much?” or I say to myself, “Have I taken the love aspect too much?” There is a chemistry that has formed since the beginning of the series. I already intuit which side is heavy while I send the script. Ali also voices his opinion. Immediately we realise that there is a need for revision there, or Ali raises or lowers the tone. I think something like groping has happened in a strange way, otherwise it’s not a formula such as 30 pages of crime fiction, 20 pages of this, it’s something we found completely with our inner voice. I think there is such a strange feeling in this business; for example, when I wrote and turned the first episode in, I said that in episode 5 we will reveal who the murderer is. At that time, we all said okay, but then they liked this game so much that there were questions such as whether we were doing it early or wrong. Even when we revealed the murderer, the sector said that this business would end, it would not get much attention, and from there it would go back to the family. Are we doing it right, yes, because that was my feeling when I first wrote it. I said we shouldn’t change it because of the rating or the demands, and both the director and the producer said okay. And I think it evolved to a better place because it would get boring after a while, the real rupture would start there, that was the right time. In this business, we care about each other’s inner voices as much as our own. If Ali’s worried about something, it means a lot to me. I value him, I respect his inner voice and I always take measures against it. I trust that strange thing that happens here, the inner voice.
Ali: Nothing should take precedence over the other, but yes, especially the fans would like to see more Ilgaz-Ceylin in the background. Sema has written a lot of couple stories, love stories, I’ve shot a lot of them, we’ve blessed them, we’ve made big moves. But I don’t want to disrupt the reality here, the normal rhythm. We can magnify each moment with higher frames, but it should not get in the way of the rhythm of the work. It also seems to me that it leaves a better flavour.
Yes, Ilgaz-Ceylin love would normally make a season-long series. And the audience is also used to this.
Sema: I guess I can’t write a normal TV series after this. I got the taste of it.
I think you should only write detective stories from now on.
Sema: I’ve loved detective stories since I was a kid. In a writing exam I took, they gave out three pictures, and I was the only one who chose one picture among the others, and I won by writing crime fiction. The late Turgut Özakman said to me, “You are the only one who wrote crime fiction and won this year.” Since then, I have always had an interest in detective stories because I loved them. One can sometimes find one’s own voice years later, even when entering the 20th year of her profession.
Let’s call it the right time, maybe if you had done it a few years ago, it would have been premature, it would not have paid off…
Sema: It would have been early and it wouldn’t have worked, I would have been discouraged, and I wouldn’t have written again. So this was the right time. As I just said, during the pandemic, everything progressed very spontaneously, with Ali sending me a message. It’s as it should be right now.
Ali: I watch more detective stories; I read more detective stories, including your other magazine 221B, but I was always saying that it’s hard to make detective stories in this country, and I’m a director, it’s hard to write, I wish I could. It’s hard to translate this on TV, that’s why I was staying away, I thought we couldn’t do it justice. But it all came together in such a place. By the way, my father was also a police officer, a police chief, he retired and we travelled a lot.
Really?.. It’s already obvious that both of you have aptitude and equipment for the genre. There are some fundamental problems in crime thrillers in Turkey, some have good scripts but mistakes are made in directing. For example, a policeman not wearing gloves at the crime scene. The director’s command is also very important in crime thrillers. Sometimes the director has a good command, but there are fundamental mistakes in the script. Family Secrets, does not have problems at this level.
Ali: Yes, we care a lot. At the beginning of the project, we travelled a lot with Sema, we also went to Vatan Police Headquarters. Although Sema would actually be more useful when writing, it becomes difficult when faced with real information. For example, even though we would otherwise speed up the work, we say let’s do what is real, let’s not make mistakes. Maybe most of the audience won’t notice it, but it’s a sensitive thing for people who will notice it, we want to do the right thing. Both the art team and the production team pay a lot of attention to this.
You both emphasized reality and mentioned consultants. Are there consultants from other fields, such as prosecutor’s office, forensic medicine process, police?
Sema: The series now has two legal advisors. They read the script of the series line by line every episode and make the necessary corrections. I call them even when the sequence and flow of the episode is being formed, I try to find a way to make it work because it is a drama. Since I have been working with Erdal and Yunus since Karadayı, they understand me and tell me what can be done. It is not possible to replicate real applications because then you can’t do anything. Since the functioning and rules are different, we make it suitable for the drama together. Apart from that, there is a psychologist counsellor. The Director of Ankara Public Security Branch is studying, and the Director of Istanbul Narcotics Branch is studying here. They also support us in that respect. They read it line by line and give us feedback that the police would not say it like that.
Ali: We also go over it on the set. If we are going to shoot a scene in a prison or a courthouse, sometimes I ask Sema if this is true, and she immediately asks the expert. When we get the right information, we shoot it.
Sema: There is a very meticulous work for realism both in the script and on the set. I think Family Secrets is one of the closest works to realism made in Turkey.
I can talk about each character for a long time. But lately, I think Family Secrets is a work where the actors embrace, love and understand the character they play very well. I feel like being in Judgment is very special for the actors as well. This is a work in which every character is a regular person, not a superhero. Sema, how did you create these characters? Ali, what do you focus on the most in casting management? Because I think casting management is also at a high level.
Sema: First, I created the characters by writing their detailed backgrounds. We have a counselling psychologist, I sent the characters to them, we had a meeting with them. We analysed their mental states one by one. Currently, they read the script for each episode and gives directions. We also met with them again when we were working on the next stories. Since the emotions inside people direct their actions, knowing their psychology opens a very big door. When we are sure of that, that character does not stop, but continues to move and take action. That is very valuable information. The part I am leaning on the most right now is this work with the psychologist.
Ali: I enjoy working with new actors more in every project, discovering them, getting to know them. In the first episodes, I shape the character through the script until I establish that language, but then, as I hear their voices, I like to give them space. If he offers me something during rehearsal and we can add something to it, that’s the richest part. It becomes more enjoyable when it evolves into something else, from the beginning of the stage to after the rehearsal. I also like to open up space. They used this very well and took advantage of the opportunities very well. They really found a harmony within themselves, just as we feel like we are doing something right with success, so do they. Their harmony on the set is the same. They go to different corners from us and work on scenes together, they come ready-made and make suggestions. In that sense, I am very happy, very comfortable. This means that we trust each other and surrender. It’s the most important thing on the set. I think this is reflected on the screen as well.
I would also like to talk about the music of the series. Our writer Yasemin Şefik said, “You can understand which song is played at the end of the series in Judgment from those who call Best FM the next day. “If songs from a few years ago are played in the series, they become the most requested after a day,” he said. Who decides the songs?
Ali: I wonder if I should get a bonus for this! 🙂 I choose the music according to the emotion of the scene, but I also share it with Sema. She usually likes it too. I enjoy it very much. I attach great importance to the use of correct music. When I was preparing the project, I was scanning the archives so that the work wouldn’t get cold. One day I listened to the lute played by a Moroccan musician. I said, “This is just Ilgaz.” I sent it to Mr Kerem, Kaan Urgancıoğlu and Toygar Işıklı. The lute would be the warming part of this work, it’s very emotional and it’s something from us. The predominant use of lute came out from there. I listen to songs that young people know, like Can Ozan, Kalben or Pinhani songs. I really enjoy this job.
So, were there any original or surprising comments you received from the audience?
Sema: In this particular work, I think the audience has learnt to think the most unlikely, the most opposite corner. For example, when asked who poisoned them, they choose the most unlikely person. They choose the place where I wouldn’t even say whether I should go there. In that sense, his comments push me a bit, but in a better way. It also brings a feeling that I should surprise in a bigger, different direction.
Ali: On the other hand, extremely funny caps are made, I find it very funny. Because it is a different job, a dark, detective job, young people on social media work from the opposite perspective. I’m having so much fun there.
The overseas sales of the Family Secrets have also started…
Ali: It has started and we think it will go very well. Mr Ateş, who makes our overseas sales, always wanted a love story from us. When this story came out in January, he said, “Are you sure, this business is dark?” Now he says, “I’m glad you didn’t listen to me.” 🙂 On the one hand it’s very local, but on the other hand it’s universal because it has family ties, and it’s a work that can be translated in many countries.