Modus: Is the TV4 drama Nordic Noir’s next big hit?
DQ travels to Stockholm to speak to the cast and creatives behind Modus, a new thriller hoping to change the landscape of the Swedish crime genre.
It’s a sunny September day beside Ladugårdslandsviken, a boat-lined bay in the centre of Stockholm, as DQ arrives in the Swedish capital for the launch of Modus.
The eight-part series tells the story of a psychologist, Inger Johanne Vik, who becomes involved in the police hunt for the murderer of a female bishop. She later learns that her daughter witnessed another murder and that the two killings are connected as part of a spate of hate crimes, and unwittingly puts herself and her family in danger.
Based on Norwegian crime writer Anne Holt’s novel Pengemannen (Fear Not), it is the first series produced by Miso Film’s Swedish base, led by Sandra Harms, and airs on TV4. The show is distributed by FremantleMedia International.
TV4’s head of drama Josefine Tengblad, who was previously an executive producer for the commercial network before starting her new role in April, has been looking for the channel’s next big drama for four years and had many projects in development, but she says it was clear this was the right show to bring to air.
“This is eight episodes of one story. TV4 hasn’t done that in eight years,” Tengblad says. “It’s mostly been 90-minute dramas. Wallander and Beck have been huge brands for us and have been a great success. But I felt that we needed to step into this area. We have to do these series because that’s the future. We’re really ready for it now and the audience is ready.
“It’s harder as a commercial channel, of course. We have commercial breaks and people are more used to getting something a bit easier. It’s important to get the best team behind and in front of the camera and then to get something that has quality storytelling. It’s interesting to see how the audience will react because it’s so important. This will open doors for future projects.”
Judging by the ratings for the show’s debut this week, it’s a risk that could pay off. The first episode drew 1.22 million viewers to TV4 at 21.00, scoring a 36.4% audience share – making it TV4’s biggest drama launch in more than two years (Inkognito debuted to 1.28 million viewers in January 2013).
Producer Harms says of the show’s format: “It’s told from a different angle. Our main character is not a policewoman, she’s a profiler and psychologist. So we tell stories about people, not about the investigation. We decided to limit the number of scenes during the investigation as much as we could so we didn’t get the obvious police series that we’ve seen a lot in Swedish television.
“We really focused on the characters rather than the investigation. That’s also a challenge because in the first two episodes, the main character is still not involved so we have to push the story in different ways. From episode three, she gets into the investigation.”
Integral to the project are Danish writing duo Mai Brostrøm and Peter Thorsboe (Unit One, The Team), who embarked on their first ever adaptation with Modus.
Brostrøm says: “Josefine and Sandra called us and introduced us to the book. Sandra then came to Copenhagen and it was a perfect match between us.
“We were afraid of doing an adaptation in the beginning – it’s a private room you enter between the novel writer and her readers. It’s a difficult place to be, so we talked about it a lot. But we were fascinated to get under the skin of another writer and develop it from there. We were also in a place where we thought it would be nice to do something different and have a new challenge. It was important that we had the right team, and the four of us were a perfect match from the beginning.”
Thorsboe says he and Brostrøm were interested in twisting the crime genre by creating a “whydunnit,” rather than a traditional ‘whodunnit.’ They then drafted an outline of the entire story. “That’s really important,” he says. “Then we split up and had big battles about who wrote the best scenes!”
Brostrøm, who is now writing season two of European crime drama The Team with Thorsboe, continues: “But we agree about the whole story and the storyline, and we discuss the scenes. When it comes to the writing, we have to sit alone. We’ve been working together for 15 years. In the beginning, we wrote on the same computer, line by line. But eventually we built up another way of working because when you’re together that many hours, you have to find freedom in your own writing.
“Sometimes you can kill it if you keep talking about it – you just have to write and see what comes up in the moment. That’s why we’ve balanced it that way, and it works very well for us.
“We spend so much time talking and outlining but when it comes to the writing, we split up. Afterwards we read what each other has been writing and we discuss it and we argue again!”
The pair often rewrote scenes as they found the characters developing through different drafts and meetings with Tengblad and Harms, but all four creatives worked closely with concept director Lisa Siwe and director Mani Maserrat throughout the process to bring their shared vision of the series to air.
Siwe (The Bridge), who directed the first four episodes, says she found the project interesting from the moment she read the script: “I liked the characters and the fact it was a character-based story. For me, it always starts with character. It also has a strong and complex woman as the main character and it was political. It had so many aspects – it was not only a crime story, it was also about family. This was something new. The characters and the families were as exciting as the crime story.”
Speaking about Modus’s tone, Siwe says she wanted it to have a sense of heightened reality – believable but not necessarily realistic. “I wanted it to feel like a feature, realistic in its emotions and full of contrast in the colours, from light and dark to the city and the forest and the story,” she explains.
“Together with the set designer and cinematographer, we wrote a bible for what we were going to make. In Sweden we often do very realistic dramas but I wanted this to be in a universe of its own. We had such a great team. There was so much love in this project, in front of the camera and behind. Everyone felt they were doing something important.”
For co-director Mani Maserrat, who took charge of episodes five to eight, the show was a chance to develop his skills behind the camera. “I usually work with handheld cameras so because Lisa started it, it was a great experience to be forced to use American cinematic filmmaking techniques, using a dolly and wide shots,” he says. “Now I will continue to explore. I feel like I’ve developed as a director.”
Discussions are now taking place to decide which of Holt’s novels – there are five in the Vik series – could be adapted next if a second season is greenlit. One thing’s for sure, though – crime is still the genre of choice for viewers in Scandinavia.
“Crime still works so well,” says Tengblad. “We try to push it and make new types of crime series. In this series, you leave the police station and it’s more about what’s happening to the characters. You feel the audience wants that, and that’s super exciting for us.”
Harms adds: “This is a really big investment and let’s hope it goes really well because we really want TV4 as a commissioner for quality drama. SVT is doing it too but we need one more.”
The fact that Modus isn’t your typical crime drama was a big draw for many members of the cast. Melinda Kinnaman (Ørnen), who plays Inger Johanne Vik, says she had previously avoided police stories. “When I heard about it, I thought it sounded like another Swedish crime series. But when I learnt more about the ambition of the show and how the scriptwriters wanted to make every character rich and complex, I wanted to do it,” she explains.
“These scriptwriters are so good at not saying too much. You don’t understand exactly what each character is. As in real life, we’re all full of contradictions and they really captured that. Sometimes Swedish TV is more simplified and you don’t have that, so it’s very special. TV can be really fast. Here it felt like everybody wanted it to be as good as possible. The most important thing was to ensure the show was really good quality, and I think we managed it.”
In the series, Kinnaman’s Vik partners with police officer Ingvar Nyman (Henrik Norlén) to find the murderer. While Norlén has played lots of policeman, he says Modus was very different from what he had done before.
“This was new for me,” he says. “I like to think he’s a policeman but he’s in a thriller. That’s the difference with this kind of role. I also liked that we were doing one book for eight episodes. Usually we do 90 minutes for one book. In this series you really get to know the families and then there’s a murder and you see how it affects them. It’s very unusual. And it’s a nice world of characters that they’ve built.
“When I watch series like The Wire, I like to get to know people. I’d like to see more of that in Sweden, not just one case per episode.”
Married actors Cecilia Nilsson (Morden) and Krister Henriksson (Wallander) reprise their personal relationship as the Bishop and her husband. Henriksson signed on having previously worked with Tengblad. “Josefine was the producer of the Wallander movies and I like to work with people who I like, who I have confidence in, and I have a great confidence in her,” he says. “When she became the head of TV4 drama, she asked me about this show and, without reading the script, I said I would do it because of her. I saw the first episode and I don’t regret it.
“It’s a new genre. Wallander and Beck were more or less three hours with all the commercials. This is just one hour (per episode). And that’s quite new. It’s not crime, it’s more of a thriller.”
Nilsson, who will appear in SVT drama Springfloden (Spring Tide) in 2016, adds: “There is an interesting underlying story that will reveal itself. Anne is a fantastic writer and her spirit is very well taken care of in the series.”
Fellow cast members Simon J Berger (Torka aldrin tårar utan handskar), who plays Vik’s ex-husband Isak Aronson, and Alexandra Rapaport (Ulrika Sjöberg) both felt the script was too good to turn down.
“I thought it was another Nordic crime show but then when I read it, I realised it was a drama, a thriller. Both that genre, which interests me, and the quality of the script really made me keen on doing it,” Berger says. “It’s got a lovely quality and both the team and the cast are absolutely amazing. The plot is not just the case and then some drama scenes sprinkled on top. Here the drama storylines are the plot and among those plotlines there’s also the case.”
Rapaport (Morden i Sandhamn) adds: “It’s a great script and all of us had discussions with Lisa about our characters to develop them so that we’re not just a function, we’re real people in the series.”
Based on a book by a Norwegian writer, written by Danish writers and produced by a Swedish production company for a Swedish broadcaster, Modus is a truly Scandinavian production. And with the demand for a new thriller to follow the success of Forbrydelsen (The Killing) and Bron/Broen (The Bridge), Modus might just be what the international television market has been waiting for.
Holt’s life of crime
As one of Scandinavia’s most successful crime novelists, Anne Holt admits she was reluctant to allow a new television adaptation of one of her books and was waiting for the right team to come along.
With Miso Film and TV4 behind Modus, she thinks she’s found it – and the author likes what she’s seen so far.
“I really love it,” she tells DQ. “I’ve seen the first six chapters and I’m very impressed, both when it comes to the script – they’ve taken care of my universe in a very respectful way but still managed to convert it into a TV series in a fantastic way – and the actors.”
In particular, Holt speaks warmly of scriptwriters Mai Brostrøm and Peter Thorsboe and says she was happy to leave her story in their hands, staying in the background during production.
“I love Peter and Mai’s earlier series,” she says. “You can’t argue with success. They have three Emmys – they know what they’re doing. The producer Sandra Harms made enquiries with several Swedish scriptwriters and was just not satisfied with them, so then she said, ‘Let’s try to go for the best.’
“Peter and Mai were somewhat reluctant to do Modus – they never do adaptations – but they’ve done an excellent job. I know a lot of authors who have had their work adapted and they all seem a bit unsatisfied afterwards. They feel something is lost or wrong. But this story has gained something.”
With her background working for Norwegian broadcaster NRK and as a police officer, lawyer and journalist – not to mention a short spell as minister for justice – Holt’s novels feature plots rooted in problems with society, such as Modus’s exploration of hate crime.
“As a writer I’m always asked if I have profited from the fact I’ve covered so many areas in my working life, but I make up my people. They’re not based on real people,” she explains. “My strength is probably that I’ve lived for a long time and I’ve met a lot of people, spoken to a lot of people and read a lot of newspapers. My position as a crime writer in Scandinavia has made it easier to do research because I can pick up the phone and call anyone.
“I was in the police force for two years and made some connections there, so if I need to know what the inside of a police car looks like, they can show me. That’s a benefit, but otherwise life experience is what inspires me and gives me my main advantage as a writer.
“My main goal is always to write a story that is entertaining. I write suspense, but it’s no fun for me or the reader if it doesn’t reflect my political engagement. My latest book is about extremism. I’ve written about child abuse, racism, everything.”
The BBC is adapting another of Holt’s novels, 1222, which features police officer Hanne Wilhelmsen, the author’s most prolific character. But would she ever write an original story for television?
“I’m too old to learn new skills. Why should I write TV when they do such an excellent job? I should stick with what has given me quite a comfortable life for the last 25 years.”