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April 20, 2016

To Catch a Thief

An international jewel heist — and the music of David Bowie — set the tone for a SundanceTV thriller.

Bruce Fretts

On paper, it looked as if the makers of The Last Panthers were biting off more than they could chew.

A six-hour miniseries shot in five European countries and three languages, the SundanceTV political thriller interweaves the stories of British insurance investigators (Oscar nominees John Hurt and Samantha Morton), a French-Algerian cop (Cesar Award winner Tahar Rahim) and a Serbian jewel thief (Goran Bogdan).

"We knew it would be a big task," says Breaking Bad vet Johan Renck, an executive producer who directed all six hours, which debut in April and are available on demand. "But I like it when things get tricky."

Not the least of Renck's challenges was working in a foreign language. "I'm fluent in English and French, but I only know nasty words in Serbian," he says with a laugh. "It's difficult, but it's also very interesting. It's almost like shooting a weird kind of mime theater, but you've got these weird little noises coming out of people's mouths, and you don't know what they're about."

Still, executive producer Peter Carlton was sure Renck was the right man for the job. "We needed somebody who could handle the genre but also layer in the politics and human tragedy," he says. "Johan was able to anchor it in real people — it wasn't just a visual exercise."

He brought the teeming story to life with the help of a veteran cast. Morton provides the linchpin, as she plays her character at two ages, including flashbacks to 20 years earlier when she was a U.N. peacekeeping soldier.

"She did six months of heavily disciplined army training," Carlton says, "running over hills with bricks in her rucksack and going to the gym seven times a week. It wasn't just about getting into physical shape, but getting into mental shape. But she said, 'You don't get many parts like this — they always go to the boys.'"

Hurt proved equally game, tackling Morton's corrupt yet sympathetic mentor. "My trick was to un-John Hurt-ify him a bit," Renck says. "But he was phenomenal to work with — he still loves his profession."

Another British icon, David Bowie, wrote the haunting theme song, a short piece that eventually grew into the title track of his acclaimed final album, Blackstar.

"I approached him out of pure audacity to see if he would do it, and all of us were surprised when he immediately expressed interest," says Renck, who later directed the track's eerily prescient video, released in November; the album came out only two days before Bowie's death in January. "He told me he was ill and dying, but I'm the eternal optimist, so it came as a complete shock when he passed away."

In the end, the entire creative team behind The Last Panthers rose to the occasion. "We wanted it to be big and ambitious, to have a great director and a brilliant cast, reduce people to tears, be really smart and blow a lot of things up," Carlton concludes. "I reckon we checked off all those boxes."

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