A former television producer with a PhD in English Lit, Walter Iuzzolino is the eponymous founder of Walter Presents, the free-of-charge Channel 4-commissioned online platform that's been described as "the Netflix of international drama".
As the name suggests, the service is a personally-curated collection of Walter's handpicked foreign-language titles, and is responsible for bringing shows such as the critically-acclaimed Deutschland 83 and French political thriller Spin to British TV sets.
I met Walter recently at Soho's Dean Street Townhouse restaurant. After mispronouncing his surname to the waitress and feeling immediately underdressed among the assembly of elite TV types, I sat down with Walter to discuss the phenomena of binge-watching, what it's like watching over 3,500 hours of television as a job, and whether or not TV has finally usurped cinema as the primary medium of visual storytelling.
VICE: So first off, I have to ask about the name...
Walter Iuzzolino: [Laughs] I'm not an insane megalomaniac. One day I got a call from the Chief Creative Officer at Channel 4, and she said, "Walter, you're going to faint slightly, but I've got an idea... It's not definitely going to happen, but can I model this with the name Walter Presents?" I kind of went [pulls a terrified face], purely because, as much as I am vocal and passionate about stuff, I am also quite a shy and reserved person. I'm still petrified about the onscreen thing, because really I'm just a weird geeky Italian who loves foreign drama.
Is it true you watched 3,500 hours of television in order to select the programmes?
Yeah, more than that now. My brain's quite frazzled. I'm not kidding. It's stressful to do something that you're living in your head. It's a bit like writing, when you go, "This is either my big novel or my big nothing."
One thing I've found with watching [so many shows] is that, frequently, the very best dramas are the ones that start slow. So the first couple of episodes are scene setting, and you go, "Is anything going to happen?" and suddenly they go "BANG!" [In the opening episodes] these shows paint a broader picture of community, family, a political party, whatever it is, and then they zero in on the characters and you're riveted.
Are there certain underlying themes to the shows you've chosen?
They're all absolutely interconnected, in the sense of the specific criteria we used to choose them. The notion was that we didn't want to create anything that was elitist or snobbish. We wanted to go big, broad, shiny and mainstream, [but] with intelligence and class.
It was a great joy for me when we started, because if your only real filter is exceptional quality then it's gonna be amazing fun. It's a bit like HBO – you're gonna see stuff that ranges from The Sopranos to Six Feet Under to Sex and the City. The scope of what a channel like HBO does is extraordinary, and in a similar way, that was our filter. What I think's unique to this service is the range; our filter is precise, but it's wide. We just go: excellent writing, excellent acting, excellent directing. That's all we're looking for.
Do you think TV's overtaken cinema in terms of its quality?
Without a shadow of a doubt, I believe television is the new cinema and that cinema's gone. And I say this as a huge lover of film – I was raised on Bergman, Fellini, Woody Allen and Truffaut, so god knows I love cinema. But I think that mainstream cinema is now completely constrained into an X-Box, 3D, CGI, product-placement world. The medium of storytelling is squashed into 80 to 90 minutes, where you have to have the big product placement, the game that goes with it, the 3D effects so you can shove in the glasses and charge £1.50 more... All of that is a terrible brace on cinema being really interesting.
Think about it: only ten years ago no respectable actor or director would ever have gone to television, and now Scorsese does stuff for HBO... Big directors, big ticket actors and great storytelling have entirely migrated onto small screen, thanks to HBO, AMC, Showtime, etc. I think these channels have championed the real filmic quality of TV drama and the world has followed.
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What do you think about current UK television culture?
I'm a terrible, crazy Anglophile. I've been living in the UK for 20 years and I think it's the most culturally-progressive country in the world, I really do. As an island it's very outward-looking – it's curious. It is no mystery that the big wave of international success for drama has come from the UK. It is here that Scandi [noir] made its reputation, and because it became successful here, America and other countries go, "Why are 2 million people in the UK watching that thing with subtitles?" I think the UK is the maker of absolutely great cultural prototypes. The audience here is open and excitable enough to have created a real market for international drama.
What about the phenomena of binge-watching that's cropped up as a result of online viewing – is this a good thing for the industry?
It's heavenly. I don't think there's any negative association with the notion of binge-watching, because it's associated with great narrative in storytelling. One beautiful thing about it is that most people binge-watch as a couple or with family, so it's a shared experience.
All it means is that you become choosier with what you watch. I think it refines you, so you then seek out better and better stories. It's a virtual cycle where viewers become more demanding and more appreciative of quality. Shit telly doesn't stand up any more, and it will stand out less and less.
I sound quite polemic here, but I mean this: being exposed to ugly, shallow, unintelligent stuff makes you uglier, shallower and less intelligent. You hook up and become addicted to something that's nutritionally poor for you, and so you park your brain on a level that is lower than it could be. [Whereas] if you feed yourself on good writing, good acting, good directing, your brain starts to go, 'Oh, this is exciting' and you want more of that. Your tolerance for shit decreases.
Finally, what are your ultimate goals for Walter Presents?
My dream is to create something that is a bit peculiar and interesting, to create an international reputation for what I think is great, because I believe that no matter where you live, audiences are smart and audiences like a good story, and they will enjoy beautifully-crafted storytelling, regardless of wherever they are. And so I think it would be really exciting to reach that global audience.
You can check out Walter Presents and their current selections here.
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