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On the Case: Baldvin Z on his new Icelandic drama

Icelandic director Baldvin Z tells Michael Pickard how he used music to piece together new crime drama Case and reveals how the script tempted him to venture into TV.

When it comes to making television drama, music is usually one of the final elements brought to the process, deep into post-production.

But for new Icelandic crime drama Case, it was used to set the atmosphere for the series and help the cast understand the characters they were playing.

The idea came from the show’s director Baldvin Z (aka Baldvin Zophoníasson), who had previously used the technique on the set of his film Life in a Fishbowl.

Baldvin Z on set shooting Case
Baldvin Z on set shooting Case

“We started working with the music way before shooting,” he tells DQ. “I presented the idea and how I wanted to approach the project, and I started to make some music that I used to get people on board with the atmosphere and to show them the kind of TV show we were going to make. It helps a lot.

“In the shooting and rehearsals, sometimes I would put the music on to help the actors imagine where they were and what would be playing on the show at that moment. I use music a lot. I’m hands-on all the way. After we have shot something, I’m there all the way to the end. But I allow everybody to bring their heart into it. I want everybody to participate and put everything into it.”

A spin-off from legal series Réttur (The Court), Case opens with the apparent suicide of a promising young ballerina, and follows the battle between her biological parents and her foster parents to uncover the truth behind her death – with everything seen through the eyes of the lawyers involved.

The nine-part drama, produced by Sagafilm and helmed entirely by Z, is due to premiere in mid-October on Iceland’s Channel 2.

With his background in feature films, the director had never considered a television crime drama – until he read Case’s script. “This is something I couldn’t imagine myself doing two years ago,” he says. “I don’t really watch much crime drama. I’d always told myself I wouldn’t do a TV series like this, and now I’ve directed Case.

“I received scripts for three episodes about two years ago. I read them and I was really drawn to the show. It’s about teenagers and a situation that’s going on in Iceland’s underworld. I also saw it as a crime story but with a big drama in it. That was something that appealed to me – it was more about the drama than the crime. It’s not a typical crime drama – it’s not a ‘whodunnit.’ It’s about the ‘why,’ so it has a lot of unusual twists and it takes you to different places compared with other crime shows.

Case focuses on the death of a ballerina, following the fallout through the eyes of lawyers
Case focuses on the death of a ballerina, following the fallout through the eyes of lawyers

The slow-paced nature of the series has led to comparisons to fellow Scandinavian series Forbrydelsen (The Killing), and Z says Case sits comfortably alongside other Nordic noir shows.

“It’s much more about the characters than the actual events,” he explains. “It starts with this girl who is found hanged but the case is much bigger than that, and that’s what’s interesting. You get to follow these characters and when we reveal the ‘monster’ in the middle of the series, it takes you on a new adventure that is really exciting. I’m looking forward to seeing reactions to that.”

On set, Z says he’s keen to work with the actors as much as possible to make the story as realistic as he can: “I really work a lot with the actors and try to take them to the next level, and I want them to take me to the next level with them. I wanted to have believable characters and make it as realistic as possible. I didn’t want to drive a scene to the edge because it had to be really exciting – I’m always trying to find the truth in everything. And if I succeed in that, the rest comes with it. It’s exciting because the suspense comes naturally. You don’t want to force it into the scenes.

“It’s been really interesting to go into this drama. I have approached it like I do for everything – it’s a drama with storytelling and characters. I’m not making a crime series, I’m making a drama with crime in it and that takes it to another level.”

Z notes that the time and space Scandinavian dramas allow for character development contrasts with faster-paced series, particularly those produced in the US. “The difference compared with US shows is you have this opportunity to realise that all the characters are made of flesh and bone and you breathe with them. You see them making decisions. You see something more than in American shows, where everything’s so pacy and everyone’s so witty and clever.

The nine-part drama begins this month
The nine-part drama begins this month

“The characters in Case are broken. They always make the wrong decision – they’re so imperfect and that is what makes it interesting. The cops are not cool, they are just people. They’re getting into situations they’ve never been in before and they don’t know what to do. Iceland doesn’t have the biggest underworld scene so I have to make it realistic for Icelandic people, and I think it will be interesting for foreigners to see it.”

Z says the first season’s conclusion leaves room for a second run and that he is now keen to work more in television. He has also directed three episodes of Trapped, another Icelandic drama from director Baltasar Kormákur and produced by RVK Studios and Dynamic Television. The Weinstein Company has picked up US rights to the show, which will air domestically on RUV and centres on a troubled cop investigating a murder when his small town is hit by a blizzard.

The BBC, ZDF and France Televisions have also picked up the series.

“It’s a very young industry in Iceland, we’re in the teenage phase,” says Z. “For the first time we’re really emerging onto the scene and we have quality stuff – equal to other content being produced in Scandinavia and Europe.

“We’ve been bringing a lot of foreign projects to Iceland and we’ve been learning from them. Our directors are getting better and better and there are so many young people doing incredible things. There’s something about our landscapes, animals and behaviour that appeals to foreigners but we are increasingly telling our own stories.

“I hope we will not quit doing our Icelandic content but we have to blend in with the universal and contemporary programming. We’re going to get bigger and bigger over the next few years. We have a lot to stay.”

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