Danish drama Når støvet har lagt sig (When the Dust Settles) sees a disparate group of characters brought together by a devastating terrorist attack in Copenhagen. DQ finds out why this isn’t another Nordic noir.
At first, there is little to link the ensemble cast of characters at the centre of Danish drama Når støvet har lagt sig (When the Dust Settles). A father is fighting to keep his family together, an elderly man struggles to come to terms with his limitations and a female politician is making headlines with her latest initiative.
However, through the use of flash-forwards, the audience is soon informed of the tragic circumstances that will bring them together – a devastating terrorist attack at a restaurant in the centre of Copenhagen.
This use of dramatic irony, where viewers know more about the characters’ fate than the characters themselves, is the driving force behind the 10-part drama, whose first four episodes introduce the eight main characters, before the central tragedy unfolds in episode five. The remaining instalments then follow the aftermath of the attack, which has a profound impact on these people and their city.
As the series comes from Danish pubcaster DR, the home of Forbrydelsen (The Killing) and Broen (The Bridge), “maybe some people will be disappointed it’s not a Nordic noir show,” says Dorte Høgh, who created the series with her Dicte writing partner Ida Maria Rydén. “But it’s actually very different. It’s not exciting in that way. It has suspense in it, as you wonder what’s going to happen to these people, but there’s no action. It’s really just about ordinary people and their lives.”
The idea for the series emerged when Rydén and Høgh, who went to film school together, were discussing their shared fondness for Robert Altman’s movie Short Cuts, which follows 22 main characters through parallel and sometimes connected stories. From there, they thought about how people can be brought together by a single event, and developed the series for six months before taking it to DR. Launching on the pubcaster in January, When the Dust Settles is distributed internationally by DR Sales.
“We thought that idea of connectivity was so important because everyone feels divided somehow, but we’re not,” Høgh tells DQ. “The fact is we’re more connected than ever. So whatever you do has a butterfly effect on someone else. That was the beginning. Then we thought, ‘What’s the ultimate way to connect people?’ We figured out that would be terror.”
Rydén picks up: “When we started, we were curious to see how many ways you can react to a big event. We thought some of them might go mad, some become very vulnerable, and we just checked out these different approaches. They have all taken some nice and strange journeys, some of which have surprised us as well.”
From the outset, the writers were keen to ensure the story featured a cross-section of society, with each character taking on a different role – the hero, the coward, the leader and the suspect, for example. “We wanted all the main characters to be from eight to 80 so we have all kinds of ages, and different genders, sexualities and ethnicities,” Rydén says. “Then we fleshed them out with everything we know about being human. Anybody can be in a terror attack, but how would they act? We didn’t know how it would end, we just went along with it.”
Crucially, the focus of the show is not on those who commit the atrocity or why, but with the central characters, whose lives are followed before and after the attack. That the incident doesn’t happen until midway through the series also seems unusual, but the writers were keen to show the ensemble living normal lives and dealing with everyday issues and problems until one event brings them together.
“We all know they’re getting on board Titanic, we know that as a viewer something terrible is going to happen, but they don’t know,” Høgh says. “We hope viewers become more engaged in the characters [as a result].”
Rydén admits that stepping away from crime dramas like Dicte and into a character-driven story was a challenge for the writers, who had to juggle numerous plots while ensuring that when characters weren’t in the ‘A’ plot of a particular episode, their storyline was still serviced and viewers still believed in them.
“Normally, you can juggle four or maybe five characters, and we had eight. It’s horrible,” she says. “I’m never doing it again!”
Høgh adds: “We had to make rules for ourselves. They all needed to be either in some kind of relationship or outside a relationship, struggling to get into a family or out. So they all have problems. We also gave the characters a flaw. They make a mistake in the first four episodes or they have secrets, something they are not really showing. So the terror attack needed to have an effect on these people.
“But only some of them are in the restaurant. The closer they get in time and place, you don’t know who’s going to walk in because, right up until the last moment, some of them are talking about going out to eat, while somebody works there but [might be getting fired]. That’s the whole thing. You don’t know who’s there until episode five.”
Producer Stinna Lassen (The Team) joined the creative team, which also includes conceptual director Milad Alami, just six weeks before shooting was due to begin in November 2018. “My main focus was to set a group of three directors who I thought were both experienced storytellers but also new to the TV scene and had a rich and original take on the material,” she says of bringing Alami, Iran Haq and Jeanette Nordahl together behind the camera. “Ida and Dorte are very experienced writers and I thought it would be exciting to pair them with quite new talent, which is a little untraditional for DR.”
The series also stands out as one of the first of its kind to air on the broadcaster, due to its character-laden, multi-plot storyline. “It’s very ambitious to want to tell a story where you follow eight characters with eight stories, as well as supporting characters and storylines,” Lassen explains. “Danish shows have become famous for quite intimate, character-driven stories, but this has the ambition of having eight nuanced main characters that are very different, in age, gender, sexuality and class.”
The producer split her time working with the scriptwriters, as well as being a regular in the editing room and watching dailies from the set. “It’s just continuous process,” Lassen says. “But it’s also like producing five feature films in parallel with different crews. It’s my job to make sure we’re all in sync from the beginning and people know what we’re doing, and then my directors will inspire the crew to carry out the vision. But obviously, I’m very much involved in overseeing everything that comes out of the material.”
With shooting taking place predominantly on location in the Danish capital, only the restaurant where the attack takes place and one character’s home were built in a studio. Lassen says it was a challenge to realise the scale of the story, with each character having their own “arena.”
“The number of locations we needed to find was a bit daunting,” she notes. “There was just a lot of moving around, which is always a risk because you lose a lot of time. But it wasn’t as big a problem as I anticipated.
“One of the characters, Jamal [played by Arian Kashef], is a Palestinian guy and it is a challenge in Denmark to find actors who are not extremely Danish and white,” she continues. “So just finding great actors, both professional and amateur, for that storyline was also a concern. We’ve been super-fortunate to find great actors, but it is a challenge in Denmark. We’re a bit behind when it comes to that, to be honest, but hopefully that will change so people can see different characters on screen.”
Then when it came to filming the terror attack, security on set was paramount, while the cast that day – a combination of main characters, extras and stunt actors – were involved in the planning of the scene a month before it was recorded. “We would workshop it again and again, we storyboarded it, then we would film the workshop and the storyboards. So by the time we were on set to shoot it, we knew exactly when people would do what and where the camera would be,” Lassen says.
“There’s no blood or gore – that’s not of interest. But the camera doesn’t look away either, so it has a dryness to it. It’s very unsentimental and the camera just observes, which makes it very brutal to watch.”
Rydén says she cried for 20 minutes when she first saw the footage of the attack. “It’s very simple, cruel and brutal. I was so overwhelmed – it was a bit embarrassing because I wrote that episode, so I should know what happens,” she says. “We call the style ‘naked.’ We’ve not done anything to the filming style. It’s not documentary but it’s very close. It feels real. That takes a good director. You can’t write that. That’s where Milad is very good, making it very sincere and very true.
“I think it will hit viewers hard, but I hope it will bring good feelings, even though it’s a tough show to watch. You will think about your own life.”
Høgh is correct when she says When the Dust Settles isn’t another Nordic noir but, like the best of the genre, it is set to grip viewers as the problems of an everyday group of people fade into the shadows in the face of a devastating terrorist attack.
The writer concludes: “From the beginning, these strangers have an impact on each other’s lives. These people are not connected, they don’t know each other, but there’s a reason why some of them arrive at the restaurant and some of them don’t, and it’s because of something someone else does.”
Calling the shots
With the plan from the outset to tell a story of a group of unconnected people before, during and after a terrorist attack, the obvious decision was to place the incident itself bang in the middle of the 10-episode series.
With that in mind, there was no way conceptual director Milad Alami wasn’t going to film the focal point of Når støvet har lagt sig (When the Dust Settles) himself. So after shooting the first two episodes, the production jumped to episode five and that cold, unemotional and shockingly brutal moment when two gunmen enter a restaurant and mow down dozens of diners.
By the time the attack is shown on screen, Alami hopes viewers will have come to care deeply about the characters – feelings that will have been encouraged by the way he chose to film the series.
“We talked about having a more immediate and poetic approach to the story,” he says. “These types of series often have a more classical visual style but we wanted an immediate, rough appearance so that when we are with the characters, we really are with them. The first thing you see is the characters and you follow that person around. We had to be clear our main characters are the most important. We had to work with natural light and a handheld style, and to be more immediate with it.
“Because it’s about eight characters who are different in sex, background and class, instead of changing the visual language with each character, it felt interesting to give them the same space and the same visual language.”
When it came to the attack in episode five, Alami worked closely with DOP Sebastian Winterø to ensure the attack was filmed in an authentic and ugly way, as far from a blockbuster action movie style as possible. They also leaned on influences such as Gus Van Sant’s school shooting movie Elephant and the films of Michael Haneke to put the audience in the restaurant with the characters as events play out.
Some sequences in the episode had to be rehearsed, particularly when it came to utilising the numerous extras who filled the set. “We have some long sequences when actors are running everywhere; it just never ends,” Alami says.
“We were doing one scene where two actors were hiding and start crying and it just gets more awful. I shot it six or seven times because I wanted to reach a point where they were in the moment. We weren’t going after an action thing – all the violence in the series is super realistic and really dry. Someone gets shot and they fall down. It’s not like you usually see in films. There’s something eerie about that when you see it and work with it.”
When the Dust Settles marks the first television series for Alami, who returned to the set to film episodes nine and 10, with most of his previous work being feature films directed from his own writing. He was keen to join the project because of the creative freedom the writers and producers would afford him and the opportunity to tell a story about a diverse cross-section of society.
“Of course it was a challenge doing something I hadn’t written myself and trying to understand how I would approach an eight character, multi-plot show,” he adds. “But we had one week of discussions about all the characters, so when we were shooting it, all the things I was unsure about were gone. It felt very creative. I was more nervous before doing it than during filming.”