In the back of a black van, we zoomed through the dusty backstreets of Istanbul, trying to decipher where we were going.
However, by the fourth turn, we were totally clueless. Our speedy van wove a Byzantine thread through the back roads and alleyways of the Turkish capital's European side to arrive at a nondescript street. It was early in the morning and the stoic residents walking to work took no notice of the plethora of trucks lining the street; the vehicles carried all sorts of things, from cameras and lightning rigs, to mobile changing rooms and toilets.
Here we were, late in 2018, poking around the set of the new Netflix supernatural drama, The Protector, the streaming giant's debut Turkish production. We all stepped out of the van, and stared up at a rugged, stone residential building. It was quite old, but once we passed through the narrow entryway, what was inside looked positively ancient.
Over three months last year, the interior of the building was stripped and hollowed out by a team of set designers to recreate a cistern. Faded columns stood around the room, creating a series of grimy archways that housed a musty-looking office and a lab featuring a series of multicoloured beakers.
It is meant to look otherworldly and claustrophobic, as it is the subterranean safe house for the show's many characters. The Protector and his Loyal Ones – a superhero and his assistants – are tasked with protecting Istanbul from the evil Immortals bent on destroying the ancient city.
A new way of working
The drama has not only gripped Turkish viewers with its cool and urban visuals, but by being the first original production by Netflix set in Turkey, it also ushered in a new face of Turkish drama that's far removed from the sweeping romantic series Gulf viewers are accustomed to.
It was something that executive producer Alex Sutherland had been thinking about. A veteran of both the British and American film industry, Sutherland has a long history with Istanbul, having worked as a producer for the Turkish shoots of acclaimed films such as Argo (2012), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) and the 1997 James Bond blockbuster The World is Not Enough.
Speaking to The National, he explains how he wanted to bring a measured filmmaking sensibility to the often slapdash working pace of the Turkish television industry. "I wanted to bring in a more American and English kind of way of working with The Protector," he says. "And that is bringing in different directors and writers to work on episodes as well as bringing characters in and out of the season, which is different to what is happening here in Turkey."
But perhaps the most revolutionary development of all is Sutherland's insistence on keeping it brief. With Turkish dramas often extending to more than 100 episodes of 130 minutes each, The Protector's 10 episodes of 40 minutes is tiny by comparison. "We get to focus more on the quality, instead," says Cagatay Ulusoy, 28, the burly yet baby-faced actor who embodies the title character. Representing a new generation of Turkish television stars, Ulusoy made his name in 2015's Medcezir, a Turkish version of the American teen drama, The O C.
He explains that until he worked on The Protector, he viewed his craft more about having to graft than about working to finesse. "From the perspective of us actors, we now have more time to rehearse, which makes us focus and work much better." That also extends to what goes on behind the scenes.
The idea of multiple directors helming the series is not unheard of in the Turkish television industry, which often relies on one or two directors to take on the whole series.
Turkey’s new generation of directors
The Protector's workload is shared by four young directors, Umut Aral, Gonenc Uyanik, Gokhan Tiryaki and Can Evrenol, who all come from a film and television commercial background. That experience has been central to the show's expansive visuals. Istanbul – from the secret passageways of its historic Grand Bazaar to the Bosphorus River that oozes romance and loneliness in equal measure – plays a big role in the drama.
“It is a major protagonist in the show, with its mixture of East and West,” remarks Evrenol. “And the West has always been fascinated with the East. The kind of life we live here is that synthesis of Europe and the Middle East.”
Born and raised in Istanbul, Evrenol studied filmmaking at the University of Kent, Canterbury, in the UK, before returning to Turkey to work on award-winning short horror films and commercials. His 2015 feature film debut, the chilling thriller Baskin, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.
An avid gamer, he says that he and his fellow series directors represent a new generation of Turkish filmmakers transitioning to television. "Before, the idea was that young filmmakers stay directing commercials or films, while those in television are older and more established," he says.
"There are many young people who are coming up and are six to seven years younger, and that is great."
Evrenol says the move to the fast world of television production has not only been eye-opening, but is a chance to correct some of his own industry misconceptions. He recalls being surprised by the amiable demeanour of Ulusoy, who Evrenol describes as having none of the diva antics that comes with being a national heart-throb. "He is such a humble and nice guy and has none of that spoilt behaviour that comes with being young and successful," he says. "All the rest of the cast are hard-working, and great to hang out with, and that will come across in the show, I hope," Evrenol adds.
Watching the production unfold from a quiet corner of the cistern is Sutherland, with all the young talent milling about, the industry veteran feels like a proud dad.
With Netflix recently announcing a second season of the series, Sutherland feels the impact of The Protector will extend beyond the show itself. "We want to create a new standard when it comes to production in Turkey," he says.
“The challenge is not only to do something new, but to convince people that it is possible. And so far, the feedback that I am hearing is that we are working in a far more superior way, and that other Turkish production companies want to work in the same way that we are, because it is much more effective.”
The Protector is out now on Netflix. For further details about the series go to