Russian realism

Russian realism

Michael Pickard
By Michael Pickard
April 21, 2020

In production

Swedish producer Piodor Gustafsson reveals his approach to book adaptations and explains why thriller Moscow Noir presents a new side of Russia.

While recent television dramas such as McMafia and The Americans have shone the spotlight on Russia on both sides of the Cold War, with stories full of international mystery and intrigue, one series aims to present a fresh perspective of the country.

Set at the turn of the 21st century, Moscow Noir sees ambitious young Swedish investment banker Tom Blixen take a bet on a risky deal that goes horribly wrong, locking him into a battle with millionaires, politicians, oligarchs and their private armies. The fallout sees his life put on the line while ghosts from his past – secrets he has been trying to ignore – return to haunt him.

The eight-part series is based on The Conductor from Saint Petersburg, the first of a trilogy of thrillers by Swedish writers Camilla Grebe and Paul Leander-Engström.

The fact the story is based in part on Leander-Engström’s own experiences working in finance in Russia was what particularly intrigued Swedish producer Piodor Gustafsson about the source material. His company, Black Spark Film & TV, has a reputation for book-to-screen adaptations, having also been behind Sthlm Rekviem (Sthlm Requiem) and All jag inte minns (Everything I Don’t Remember).

Piodor Gustafsson

“I read a lot. Producers don’t usually create our own ideas; we could, but sometimes it’s much easier to get people interested if it’s not the producer’s idea. If I want to work with a really good writer, it’s easier if there is something that already exists than if I come with my own 20 pages and say, ‘Look, I have a great idea. Can you make it fantastic?’” Gustafsson tells DQ.

“It’s a bigger hurdle than having a book that’s sold and is really popular. It’s the same thing with financiers [of TV drama] – it’s easier to pitch to them. So I read all the time and I have several books I really want to make [into TV shows]. Sometimes the rights are already taken; sometimes they are free. In the case of Moscow Noir, I read the book after a recommendation from Caroline Palmstierna [the founder of Swedish prodco Shoot for the Moon].

“She arranged a meeting one of the authors, Paul, and he said had already optioned it to a company in England. But they had a very short option period. So Paul promised to call them and see if they were prepared to let them go – and they were, so then I got the rights.”

Gustafsson gleaned more information from about the story from Leander-Engström, while his own circumstances also fuelled his interest in the thriller. “I have a summer house on Gotland, a big island in the middle of the Baltic Sea and as close to the old USSR as you get from Sweden, which is now Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia. You realise how close it is and yet we know nothing about real Russians,” he says.

“So by reading the book, it was the first time I read about Russians who were bad guys but still had a good side. It felt like [the authors] really understood these characters. Of course, Paul lived there for 10 years and speaks fluent Russian. I also have a law degree and I worked in a bank, so I understand that side of society as well. It intrigued me.”

Created and written by Aleksi Bardy, Mia Ylonen and Max Barron, the show stars Adam Pålsson (Before We Die) as Tom, with Carolina Gruszka (Kod genetyczny) and Linda Zilliacus (Thicker Than Water) also among the cast. Filming took place in Russia and Lithuania, while the series plays out in the Russian, Swedish and English languages.

Authors Camilla Grebe and Paul Leander-Engström (photo: Åsa Liffner)

Sweden’s C More and TV4 came on board as broadcasters alongside Poland’s NC+, though efforts to find a Russian partner were unsuccessful. “We filmed a little bit in Russia. We tried to get a coproduction with Russia and it was put to their biggest channels, but they were hesitant about whether it would be a good thing for them to be involved and, in the end, they decided against it,” Gustafsson recalls.

“The book is set in 2003, which is after Vladimir Putin came into power [as president], while we placed it in 1999 because that was when the shift between [predecessor] Boris Yeltsin and Putin happened.

“We filmed the rest in Lithuania. A lot of Lithuanian actors are fluent in Russian and they work a lot in Russia, so we could quite easily cast all the characters we wanted and cast them locally. We had some other nationalities, but most were Lithuanians and they were really great actors.”

Gustafsson believes the 2018 series, which StudioCanal has sold to broadcasters including Canal+ in France, stands out because its central character is not a typical action hero. “Adam is a great actor but he looks very young and is not your normal action character. That makes it challenging when you introduce him, because he’s not a typical hero, but it’s also a strength further on because the weakness he presents is what we all feel and it’s easy to identify with him,” he explains. “A lot of people could actually connect with him even though they’re not interested in banking.

Moscow noir stars Adam Pålsson as Tom, who is described as ‘not your typical hero’

The producer adds: “One of our aims was to create characters that felt true to Russia in 1999 and to move away from stereotypes. Russians we’ve shown it to feel the characters are very close to how people really were. Paul, who created these characters inspired by real people, really felt we came very close.

“We screened the first two episodes of the series in a cinema and Paul brought some of his old banking colleagues from that time. Funnily enough, they could pinpoint some of the characters that were Paul’s inspiration. Michael Håfström, the director, collaborated closely with the Russian-speaking actors to find a tone that was true.

Black Spark is now in post-production on two feature films. One is called Tigers, written and directed by Ronnie Sandahl, and the other is Icelandic film Lamb, from Valdimar Jóhannsson, which is coproduced with Go to Sheep from Iceland and Madant from Poland.

Continuing his passion for adapting novels, Gustafsson is also developing a TV series with Belgium’s Lunanimé and Nordisk Film in Denmark, based on The Swimmer by Joachim Zander, and is working on Mons Kallentoft’s Se Mig Falla (See Me Falling).

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