Tag Archives: Borgen

Oliver Stone and the politics of drama

Oliver Stone
Oliver Stone

Anyone who was at the Cannes Lions International Festival Of Creativity this week would have been able to hear Oscar-winning director, screenwriter and producer Oliver Stone talk about his new movie Snowden, which tells the story of Edward Snowden, the computer whizz who leaked huge amounts of classified data from the USA’s National Security Agency (NSA), his former employer, in June 2013.

Stone, who is not shy of tackling controversial political subject matter, was speaking during a session organised by Guardian News & Media. For him, the fascination of the Snowden story seems to be what it has to say about the power of the state and its increasing reliance on tools of mass surveillance, which he referred to as “Orwellian” on more than one occasion. For Stone, the terrifying world of 1984 and the Ministry Of Fear has arrived and Snowden, exiled in Russia, is one of the few to have kicked back.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Snowden
Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Snowden

Interestingly, Stone doesn’t see the current state of affairs as purely a product of government. In an analysis reminiscent of Noam Chomsky’s work on the military-industrial complex in Western societies, Stone railed against the expansion of the US military and its reliance on war (including the War on Terror) as a justification for its existence. He also implicated a number of other parts of the establishment for their role in normalising the current unstable state of affairs. With a few exceptions (such as The Guardian), he criticised the media for pandering to the state’s power and online companies for acquiescing to state-sponsored surveillance. He also took a pop at Europe, for its subservience to the US, and the US movie studios that collectively refused to back his latest feature film outing (it took German and French financing to get Snowden into production and a patchwork of 20 distributors to get the film to an international audience).

Outside his immediate fanbase, Stone is often thought of as a filmmaker with a loaded political agenda. But this is an accusation he refutes. Commenting on the detailed analysis that goes into his development, he said: “I’m a dramatist. I can’t take sides. I do a lot of research and tell the story that evolves. With my films on Nixon and Bush, I actually had complaints that I was too sympathetic.”

Born on the Fourth of July
Born on the Fourth of July

One of the big challenges with Snowden was taking a story that is, at its core, about a computer geek downloading information and turning it into a drama that could live on the big screen. Part of the way Stone did this was by building up the personal drama around Snowden and his girlfriend Lindsay Mills – dismissively referred to in the media as a pole dancer. He also looked at why a young man who had been so pro-establishment in his formative years would suddenly elect to become the world’s most famous whistle-blower (a story reminiscent of the journey in Stone’s film Born on the Fourth of July). “I had to walk in Snowden’s footsteps and try to feel what he was feeling. The end result, I hope, is a gripping political thriller.”

The lion’s share of Stone’s work has been in film – notably titles like Salvador, Platoon and JFK. His one outing into TV was a documentary series for Showtime entitled The Untold History of the United States, through which he shone a light on some of the less admirable part of US history.

The lack of scripted TV series from Stone may suggest he is more free to express himself through film. But there is a growing body of great work on TV that shows it is possible for writers to tell complex political truths on the small screen. Here are a few of the best examples that underline this point. Hopefully in the near future Stone will also be tempted to join the growing number of filmmakers who have decided to try their hand at TV series. Perhaps he could took take a break from fact-based storytelling and be the man to reimagine 1984 for the small screen…

House-of-Cards-4House of Cards
Beau Willimon’s adaptation of Michael Dobbs’ novel for Netflix is a superb exploration of the Machiavellian nature of modern American politics. Starring Kevin Spacey, it shows the corrupting influence of the quest for power and raises questions over the extent to which policy decisions are driven by ambition.

The Deuce
An upcoming series from David Simon for HBO, this show will tackle the legal issues around porn and prostitution in 1970s and 1980s New York. However, it will also address other social issues such as the real-estate boom, the spread of HIV/AIDS and drug use. Simon is probably the closest thing the TV business has to an Oliver Stone – having previously written The Wire, Generation Kill, Treme and Show Me a Hero, the latter an exploration of social housing that aired at the end of last year.

borgenBorgen
Adam Price’s exploration of the rise of Birgitte Nyborg to become prime minister of Denmark is widely recognised as one of the best political series of recent years. Written for Danish public broadcaster DR, it provided a fascinating insight into party politics while addressing the challenges of being a female politician. Price is tackling the subject of faith in his latest show Rides on the Storm.

honourablewomanThe Honourable Woman
For the country that gave us James Bond and John le Carré, the UK doesn’t deliver that many dramatic exposés of the establishment. The original House of Cards, Edge of Darkness and State of Play are a few standout exceptions. Possibly this is because the Brits tend to fall back on period pieces or comedy satire when criticising politicians – though this may explain why the country is not very good at interrogating its political class. One recent show that stands out is Hugo Blick’s acclaimed drama The Honourable Woman, which beautifully explores the interplay between personal ambition and geopolitical conflict.

billionsBillions
Created by Brian Koppelman, David Levien and Andrew Ross Sorkin, Billions is an intelligent attempt to get under the skin of the US financial sector. Starring Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti, it tells the story of a corrupt hedge fund manager who uses insider trading and bribery to build his empire. With an IMDb rating of 8.4, the show has been well received and recently earned a renewal.

Fauda
Hard-hitting Israeli series are now part of the landscape of the international TV industry (Homeland, False Flag). The reason YES’s Fauda stands out is that it is tries to bring both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the TV screen. Created by Lior Raz and Avi Issacharoff, the series focuses on an elite undercover unit of combat Israeli soldiers who disguise themselves as Palestinians. It is regarded as the first time that an Israeli TV drama has depicted terrorists as people with wives and children.

The New Odyssey
Colin Callender’s production company Playground recently acquired the rights to Guardian journalist Patrick Kingsley’s book The New Odyssey – The Story of Europe’s Refugee Crisis. Throughout last year, Kingsley traveled to 17 countries along the migrant trail, meeting hundreds of refugees making their journey across deserts, seas and mountains to reach Europe. His book is an account of those travellers’ experiences. At the time of writing, no screenwriter has been attached to the project.

1992_Still1992
TV has a habit of treating politics as a period subject. Often this leads to interesting shows. But apart from a few allegorical references to the present, it doesn’t really cut to the quick of the contemporary debate. One exception is 1992, a series for Sky Italia created by Ludovica Rampoldi, Stefano Sardo and Alessandro Fabbri. The series looks at the political upheaval in the Italian system in the 1990s. However, similarities to the current situation in Italian politics give the show a particular resonance.

Assembly
Korea is best known for its romance and historical drama, so KBS series Assembly is something of a novelty. It features a brave and honest shipyard welder who gets elected to the country’s national assembly. He is out of his depth until helped by an aide. The show is based on screenwriter Jung Hyun-Min’s own experience working as an aide for 10 years before breaking into TV.

secretcitySecret City
This new political drama from Australian pay TV platform Foxtel is based on Chris Uhlmann and Steve Lewis’s novels The Marmalade Files and The Mandarin Code. Adapted for TV by the writing team of Belinda Chayko, Matt Cameron, Marieke Hardy, Alice Addison, Tommy Murphy, Kris Mrksa and Greg Waters, it follows a journalist who uncovers an international political scandal while investigating the death of a young man.

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Making a Killing: Piv Bernth on Danish drama hit factory DR

What makes Denmark’s DR so successful when it comes to drama? DQ hears from its drama boss and examines two of its lesser-known series.

Danish public broadcaster DR has been one of the world’s most influential drama commissioning channels over the past decade, responsible for acclaimed series such as The Killing (pictured above), Borgen and The Bridge (aka Broen/Bron, a coproduction with Swedish public broadcaster SVT).

But how did this network become one of the biggest signatures for quality drama in international television, and what is the secret to its success?

Piv Bernth
Piv Bernth

“For me, it started with the theatre,” reveals DR’s respected head of drama Piv Bernth. “I was a stage director for five or six years before a colleague of mine went to DR and brought me over. For a while I directed theatre and TV and then another colleague at DR asked me to come and work there as a producer.

“As a director, I had complained a lot about working conditions, so he said, ‘Why not come over and do something about it instead of bouncing off the problem from the outside?’ So I signed up with DR on a three-year contract.”

After a couple of productions in the late 1990s, Bernth’s first big breakthrough was the comedy Nikolai and Julia. Written by Soren Sveistrup, it won an International Emmy.

“Then Soren talked to me about an idea he had for a 90-minute movie,” she recalls. “I said to him that it felt like it should be a longer story, so he went away and worked on it for a few months. He came back with a concept that would eventually grow into The Killing.”

Also crucial in developing The Killing (known locally as Forbrydelsen, which ran for three seasons) was lead actress Sophie Grabol’s involvement. “Sophie had been the lead in Nikolai and Julia and was used to playing talkative, emotional women,” says Bernth. “At first she wasn’t interested in The Killing because she was expecting a baby. But after giving birth she read the script and agreed to do it. She played a big part in the development of her character and the show.”

The Killing was the series that got DR noticed internationally. For this, Bernth expresses gratitude to BBC head of acquisitions Sue Deeks: “Sue saw season two of the show by accident and immediately wanted to see season one. The BBC buying it was a turning point and it went on to do well across Europe.”

The Killing was unusual because it told the story of a single murder across 20 episodes. “People said we were crazy at the beginning,” admits Bernth. “But it started with something a policeman said to us – which is that if you don’t get the killer in the first three weeks, your chance of doing so gets much lower. So this was about solving the case in 20 days. But it was also about the other storylines running throughout the series.”

The carefully controlled pacing of The Killing is something that now stands out as a hallmark of Nordic drama. “The Americans are more impatient than we are,” Bernth says. “It takes them 24 hours to save the world, whereas it took us 20 days to catch a killer – that’s the difference.”

In hindsight, Bernth believes part of the show’s appeal was that it presented an unexpected side of Denmark: “It showed Denmark as a country with a dark side, which took people by surprise because they were used to us all smiling and being friendly. I also think the look of the landscape appeals to people. In The Killing it is Copenhagen, but in another of our shows, The Legacy, it’s more about the countryside.”

The Bridge
The Bridge, starring Sofia Helin, has been a hit all over the world

Bernth says the production process at DR has a lot to do with the success of shows like The Killing. “We have an advantage in the fact that DR is a public broadcaster, so we have a large part of our budget in place very early, which makes it easier for us to plan years ahead. We also have our own in-house facilities, which means we can make our budget go further.” DR dramas typically come in at about €1m (US$1.1m) per episode.

In terms of individual shows, “the ideas come from the writers who are then teamed with producers,” Bernth explains. “This isn’t so much about talent as chemistry – the two really have to want to do something together. Recently, we’ve looked at other ways of doing things because we don’t want to be in a situation where this becomes a routine we can never get away from. But we do always try to keep to the central idea of one vision.”

Supporting show development is the team at DR Fiktion, Bernth’s department. “All of our producers meet every Wednesday from 09.00 to 11.00 and we talk about everything,” Bernth explains. “It’s important they are all free to discuss any issue. At the same time, they are all there for each other during the week. If they want someone to come and look at a sequence in the edit suite and give them advice, they are always able to do so. That collaboration is very special and it’s the kind of environment we also encourage between the writers. The writers are very important to us. Without them, we have nowhere to go.”

The success of The Killing and The Bridge has led some to pigeonhole DR as a Nordic noir producer – though Bernth prefers to place the primary credit for The Bridge with DR’s Swedish partner, SVT. She says the reality is that DR is backing a much wider range of shows: “Everyone is doing crime. There’s a lot of good crime, so we are looking the other way.”

There is The Legacy, for example, and Follow the Money, which has been sold to the BBC. And now DR is working with Borgen creator Adam Price on a show called Rides Upon the Storm. “This is about the impact faith and religion have on our lives,” Bernth says. “It’s about a family of priests and it asks questions like what if you lose faith – how do you get it back?”

Bernth makes no excuses for the tough subjects DR chooses, adding that she is grateful to the channel’s higher authorities for backing her department’s judgement. “We want to tell complicated stories in an accessible way,” she notes.

“My ambition is for us to continue to be courageous in the themes we pick for our stories. So one area we are looking at is multiculturalism. If we do another crime series, it won’t just be a crime story.”

That, says Bernth, is the way it should be for a public broadcaster. “The commercial broadcasters have to be safe, so it is our job to take on the complicated stuff. We try to give the audience what they want – but challenge them as well.”


Follow the Money
Bedrag---Follow-the-Money-s1-5

Follow the Money (aka Bedrag) recently aired on DR and achieved strong ratings, debuting to 1.3 million viewers in January this year and adding a further 150,000 for episode two. It has since sold to broadcasters including the BBC.

Explaining the genesis of the financial crime series, creator and writer Jeppe Gjervig Gram says: “When the financial crisis hit the Western world in 2008/2009, I found it frightening but fascinating. As a writer, I didn’t see it coming and realised how terribly important it is to understand big finance.

“I thought everyone would do a series about financial crime but nobody did. So after I finished working on (DR’s hit political drama) Borgen, I started Follow the Money and it is still one of the only shows on the subject.”

Gram says the idea was to “construct a story about the whole of society. So we have the big money of the upper class, the middle-class cops and the working-class underdogs who stumble upon some money that belongs to the bad guys.”

Producer Anders Toft Andersen says the challenge was to turn a complex theoretical construct into something definite. “We made everything as physical as possible and very specific,” he explains. “We also knew from the get-go we had to make it a story about greed and how it takes many shapes. It might be the desire for money and material goods, but it could also be the search for the perfect life.”

Gram echoes this sentiment: “We used greed like a fixed point when telling the story. A lot of people looked the other way and didn’t ask questions about why their house rose in value – instead asking, ‘Who did this to us?’ The way we dealt with greed was that something done out of necessity was not greed. Greed was about characters always wanting a little more.”


The Legacy
Arvingerne-The-Legacy-s2-5

The Legacy (aka Arvingerne) is a relationship drama about four siblings who come together to sort through their famous hippy artist mother’s possessions after her death.

The process becomes the focal point of their relationships with each other and leads to a re-evaluation of their feelings towards their parents. As such, The Legacy of the title is not just what they have been left, but how, as adults, they process their feelings about their childhoods.

The show is an evolution from the usual producer-writer relationship found behind DR dramas in that it also involved a third participant, production designer Mia Stensgaard.

Producer Karoline Leth says: “The production design was central to how we scripted the show. The props (mainly works of art left behind by the deceased mother) represent the mother.”

Stensgaard says this meant she had to have a close ongoing dialogue with writer/creator Maya Ilsøe: “It would start with me interviewing Maya about what is going to happen and how we could integrate people through art. And we’d look at how the props could make the dead mother live forever.”

Ilsøe says the actors also played an important part in the development process: “We work with the actors early in the story and if they tell us a character would not do something, we adjust it. Everything has to be very specific to each character. We can’t just have them sitting around the table.”

The way the creative team works on The Legacy was completely new, says Ilsøe, “so it was very stumbling at first. But now we have a system for working as an ensemble.”

The show, which is about to enter its third season, addresses tough family issues – including the fact that one of the siblings had been given away by the parents as a child.

Ilsøe calls it “a psychological drama where, through the rooms, the props and the ghost of Veronica (the mother), the siblings’ childhood is everywhere. They are people struggling with their histories.”

She stresses that The Legacy is not easy to pigeonhole, with light and dark elements driving the story forward. DR head of drama Piv Bernth says this is one of the things she likes most about the show: “The complexity of character in this series is amazing. One minute you think ‘she’s crazy’ and then you think the opposite. That’s wonderful. It’s a story that asks how you create a family when you have no role models of your own.”

In terms of oversight, Bernth says: “I read the scripts, but I trust these guys. That is how you get creativity and innovation.”

Ilsøe adds: “Trust is essential. It gives the calmness and freedom to develop the language the way we think it should be.”

tagged in: , , , , , ,

Riding the Danish drama storm

Adam Price
Adam Price: ‘I’ve always been interested in and puzzled by religion’

For a small nation, Denmark knows how to pack a punch. It makes great lager, gave the world LEGO and even managed to win the UEFA European Football Championships back in 1992. In addition to all this it is now producing some of the most compelling and intriguing TV drama series in the world.

It wasn’t always that way, says Adam Price, the creator of Borgen, an acclaimed political drama that first aired on public broadcaster DR. “Twenty-five or 30 years ago, Danish TV drama was really terrible. It had no audience at all. So DR sent a fact-finding mission to the US to see how it was done.

“They made a quite deliberate decision to improve TV storytelling and came up with a model that works for the Danish market. That model is what has made the difference to Danish drama output.”

Distilled down to its basics, there are three core elements, says Price. “It begins with the one-vision dogma – the idea that one writer’s vision is central to the process. But this is supported by the idea of the deadly duo – a producer and writer working in partnership throughout the process. And finally there is an insistence on the concept of the double story. It’s not enough just to have a good plot, shows need to tell us something about what it means to be a citizen in contemporary Western society.”

Once these elements are in place, a high level of trust is ceded to the creative. “You aren’t put through some kind of entrance exam on every episode,” says Price. “If your show doesn’t get an audience, you might not be hired again. But as long as you are working diligently on your show, you are trusted. The result is that you get shows that are not just consensus ideas.”

Nikolai and Julie
Price worked on romantic comedy Nikolai and Julie before getting his big break with Borgen

Price broke into the business when this new model was in its formative years: “There were no formal writing courses available in film schools back then. But I come from a family of theatre writers and directors that dates back two centuries. I was working in theatre when I was given the opportunity to work on a show called Taxa (Taxi). I learned my trade there and then progressed onto a romantic comedy called Nikolai and Julie. From there I was given the opportunity to create Borgen.”

Around this time, the international market started to get interested in Danish shows. So Price decided to set up his own indie production company alongside Soren Sveistrup (creator of DR’s The Killing) and Meta Louise Foldager (A Royal Affair). “We launched a company called SAM, with backing from StudioCanal,” he says. “The idea is that we continue to work on ideas for the Danish market but also build a slate of shows that are more targeted towards international audiences.”

He is, for example, working on another high-profile piece for DR called Rides Upon the Storm. Centred on a Protestant priest, “it’s a show that uses personal faith as the motivation of the action. I’ve always been interested in and puzzled by religion. It has had such a terrifying impact on the politics of the world in the last 15 years that I wanted to make a show that tries to understand it. I’ve always found that things that puzzle you can serve as the topic of compelling stories. For me, it is about satisfying a kind of scientific or journalistic curiosity.”

In Price’s opinion, Denmark makes a good backdrop for such a story “because we are all born as members of the church and pay taxes for it – unless we choose to leave, which more people are now doing. So this show looks at traditional Christian beliefs, the new younger elements and the arrival of Islam.”

Borgen
Borgen saw success around the world after initially airing in Denmark on DR

Rides Upon the Storm is moving rapidly towards production, with transmission planned for 2017. With two series (20 episodes) already ordered, it’s going to take up a lot of Price’s time. But at the same time, SAM has developed a large development slate of around 25 ideas – with some in English. One project Price hopes will get off the ground is a political series for the BBC. “That’s something that predates SAM,” he explains, “an idea I developed with Michael Dobbs.”

In terms of approach, Price says: “Writers come to us with ideas and we use our experience to advise them on the next step. Soren and I have been round the block a few times so we think we can help them get their projects off the ground.”

This is not so different to the model DR has perfected. “In the same way I was trained up, others have followed,” says Price. “The creator (Jeppe Gjervig Gram) of DR’s latest series, financial crime story Follow the Money, was a writer on Borgen.”

Running a company at the same time as writing a TV series may seem like a lot of work, but Price has no problem with that. “There’s an old saying I like: ‘If you want something done, go to a busy man.’” Maybe that philosophy explains why the Danes are among the world’s perennial overachievers.

tagged in: , , , ,

The new black: Nordic noir’s unstoppable rise

As the popularity of Nordic noir shows no sign of waning, DQ asks Scandinavian drama’s key players where they plan to take the genre next.

Ever since the massive global hit that was The Killing, Scandinavian drama has been punching above its weight, winning over critics and viewers internationally as well as influencing its European neighbours.

The latest Nordic noir success story is Sweden’s The Fat and the Angry (Ettor och nollor), which scooped another international award for the region when it picked up best non-English-language drama at the inaugural C21 Drama Awards last November. It came a close second earlier in the year at the Seoul Drama Awards with a Silver Bird gong in the TV movies category.

Wikander: 'We’re approached by broadcasters and international producers in a way we’ve never seen before'
Wikander: ‘We’re approached by broadcasters and international producers in a way we’ve never seen before’

Based on true events in Gothenburg’s criminal underworld, the two-part show, which premiered locally in Sweden in February 2014, joins a long list of award-winning Nordic dramas with international careers, including Lilyhammer, The Killing, Wallander, Borgen and The Bridge – as well as Mammon, which has been the subject of speculation about a BBC remake.

The Fat and the Angry highlights an important feature of Scandinavian dramas: coproduction. Made by Göta Film and Swedish pubcaster SVT, its partners included Finnish pubcaster YLE and Swedish film prodco Film i Väst.

With a few exceptions, Scandinavian drama’s international partnerships came out of necessity, says SVT head of drama Christian Wikander. “The hourly cost for drama has gone up, which means we’re all searching for new money, and this drove the producers and the broadcasters to reach out and broaden the network.”

If anyone can find success with this approach, it’s the Scandinavians, as Liselott Forsman, executive producer of international drama projects at YLE, explains: “We’ve been coproducing since 1959. It’s really good for Nordic drama that we have subsidy methods and two important funds within the Nordic countries.” One of these is the Nordisk Film and TV Fond, where Forsman sits on the board.

“There’s much to be gained by having a lot of smaller funding and regional funding contributions, even though they don’t pay very much,” agrees Stefan Baron, executive drama producer at Nice Drama. Baron left SVT in 2014 after 21 years to join MTG-owned Nice Entertainment Group, where he’s now an exec producer heading up international coproductions. “The trick is to not have too many partners at the script stage,” he says. “When you have a couple of scripts, then you bring in distributors and coproducers from around the world.”

Beyond the region, Nordic drama’s international appeal has grown thanks to increasingly sophisticated, social media-savvy audiences and their expanding tastes, says Wikander – adding that this has also helped prise open the door to the UK, a notoriously closed market for subtitled, non-Anglo Saxon fare.

“I think audiences are very well educated and used to all kinds of storylines, plots, dramaturgy and also language,” says the SVT man. “Because social media is so borderless, we share so much in our personal networks – and one proof of that is the success of Nordic drama on BBC4. Ten years ago, if someone had told me two million Brits would sit down to watch a subtitled drama, I wouldn’t have believed them.

“The fantastic upside for all of us working in Scandinavia today is that we’re approached by broadcasters and international producers in a way we’ve never seen before, and that’s a great opportunity for us.”

SVT is Scandinavia’s largest drama commissioner and producer, with an annual output of four longform drama series (10×60’/10×45’) and four miniseries (3×60’) across crime, family drama and comedy, on a budget of around SEK320m (US$46.6m).

Around half its output is coproduced, largely with its longstanding Nordic partners such as DR, NRK and YLE. But it has also attracted a growing band of Europeans and North Americans interested in remake rights to shows like The Bridge, and ‘hubot’ drama Real Humans, with Shine-owned Kudos’s remake of the latter, simply called Humans, now airing on the UK’s Channel 4 and AMC in the US.

Gustaffson: Bigger appetite for Nordic  drama has caused a bottleneck
Gustaffson: Bigger appetite for Nordic drama has ’caused a bottleneck’

Piodor Gustaffson, co-founder and producer of independent production company Another Park Film, and former drama commissioning editor at SVT, says that despite smaller budgets and limited development funds in the region, he’s noticed an overall increase in the quality of drama series over the last few years. “That’s about competing with not only the rest of the world but also your neighbours, as well as occasionally using the same talent,” he says.

At SVT, Gustaffson pushed for a broader range of drama output, leading to projects such as The Bridge and Real Humans. Meanwhile, Baron greenlit Nice’s family drama Thicker Than Water. The show aired in spring 2014 to a million-plus viewers, selling internationally via Germany’s ZDFE. A second season is now in the pipeline.

There’s widespread agreement that Nordic noir has opened doors for Scandinavian producers, themselves refusing to have their output pigeonholed as simply Nordic noir. With crime at its core, the programming stretches far beyond into an exploration of society and human motivations, offering a strong identification with and empathy for characters along the way. It also embraces other genres such as suspense and mystery, and fish-out-of-water crime comedy. And now producers are moving into new areas, exemplified by DR’s family inheritance drama The Legacy.

“Of course it’s about crime – it’s Nordic noir – but it’s always been character-focused,” says Jonas Allen, producer and co-founder of Danish prodco Miso Film. “We care about the characters. It’s not only about fascination with them, but also identifying with the characters, and I think that’s the basic core to all the shows.”

Now majority-owned by FremantleMedia, Miso Film counts local hits such as Those Who Kill and Dicte for TV2 Denmark, as well as the historical drama 1864 for DR, among its productions. Crime reporter series Dicte (10×45’) returned for a successful second run last autumn, with a third season now in development. It includes TV4 Sweden and TV2 Norway as coproducers, and received support from regional Danish regional funds, the EU’s MEDIA programme and DFI’s Public Service Fund.

Forsman: 'It’s our duty to tell all our audiences something about what’s happening in society today'
Forsman: ‘It’s our duty to tell all our audiences something about what’s happening in society today’

For Scandinavia’s public broadcasters, at least, another quintessential ingredient of Nordic drama is how it reflects society. “It’s our duty to tell all our audiences something about what’s happening in society today. It’s imperative that we entertain, but we should always enrich at a deeper level, too,” says Forsman.

Even though Nordic drama appears gloomy and dark, Forsman says one of the reasons Danish drama travels so well is that the characters care about each other. “You can feel it within 10 seconds of watching. You have to have a lot of empathy, no matter how harsh the subject.”

YLE Drama’s latest show is the thriller Tellus, scripted and directed by JP Siili. The 6×50’ drama deals with a group of eco-terrorists, exploring an “important ethical question” of how far individuals will go to fight for their ideals, according to Forsman.

NRK and SVT are coproducers and ZDFE is distributing it internationally outside of Scandinavia, making it “a typical Nordic coproduction,” Forsman adds. The drama opened to 27% shares on YLE1 in the autumn, continuing on 25%, with a second season greenlit before the final episode aired in December.

Pubcaster NRK’s latest traditional Nordic noir, Eyewitness (Øyenvitne, pictured top), which debuted on NRK1 last autumn, is also imbued with socio-cultural commentary. “It’s been a real success among critics and audiences,” says NRK head of drama Ivar Køhn, who’s also the current chair of the Nordisk Film and TV Fund.

It was scripted and directed by Jarl Emsell Larsen who, as the original father of Nordic noir in Norway, has 30 years of TV drama under his belt. “For the last 15 years he’s been really into social drama, when he discovered he could make crime and talk about society and also make it popular,” Køhn says of the director.

Eyewitness follows two adolescent boys who meet secretly in a forest, where they witness a violent murder. The story follows the events that build after they fail to report the crime to the police. It has already sold internationally in both finished (including to Germany) and scripted format forms.

Struggle for Life, 'the opposite of a fish-out-of-water story'
Struggle for Life, ‘the opposite of a fish-out-of-water story’

But NRK is also keen to evolve its drama. Its ‘Nordic humour noir’ show Struggle for Life (Kampen for tilværelsen) “is not so much a ‘fish out of water’ story as a ‘tigers in silent waters’ one – the complete opposite,” says Køhn.

Following in the mould of series like Welcome to Sweden and Lilyhammer, Struggle for Life centres on a Pole who travels to Norway in search of his father. Although a linguist, he can only find work as a carpenter, which exposes him to a Norwegian middle-class life of self-made problems.

“It’s a really original story and a brave one for us,” says Køhn. The project was completely controlled by scriptwriters, and co-written by Erlend Loe, Per Schreiner and Bjørn Olaf Johannessen – “some of the most exciting writers we have in Norway,” says Køhn. NRK has greenlit two seasons of the eight-part comedy drama.

Miso Film is also evolving the Nordic noir genre. “It’s one of the things going on right now,” says co-founder Allen. “A lot of creatives who we’re dealing with are looking for and trying to tell new stories.”

One of its latest offerings is NOK65m (US$8.8m)-budget mystery drama Acquitted (Frikjent) (10×45’), made for TV2 Norway and launched in March this year. The project, which received NOK10m funding from the Nordisk Film and TV Fund, became TV2’s biggest drama premiere, pulling in a 46.6% share of its 20-49s target group and a 38.8% overall share (12 years-plus).

Scripted by two female writers, Siv Rajendram Eliassen (Varg Veum) and Anna Bache-Wiig, the drama is inspired by a real rape and murder case in Norway. “They were very interested in the character, and it was always about finding out about the man who was acquitted, why he came back to his hometown, what he was looking for, and the forces that drove him back. That’s the core of the development of the show,” says Allen.

SVT’s Wikander, too, is keen for producers not to come to him with the next The Bridge. “I think we need to be brave. Take Real Humans, for instance – that’s an example of being brave, and for a public broadcaster today that’s extremely important,” he says.

C21 Drama Award-winning The Fat and the Angry
C21 Drama Award-winning The Fat and the Angry

“We need to try out new stuff but, of course, without abandoning the established crime formats. We’re going to see a third and probably fourth season of The Bridge, but we need to balance that with bravery, and we’ve started a lot from scratch, finding stories relevant to a Swedish audience because that’s our mission. When you have that mission, you can then go into the international market, but not as a first step.”

One of SVT’s newest dramas, Jordskott (10×60’), takes the pubcaster in yet another new direction. It’s made by established Swedish commercials prodco Palladium, which formed new division Palladium Fiction, headed by producer Filip Hammarström, for its first TV drama. The show, which launched on Monday February 16, opened to 1.6 million viewers and has since averaged 1.4 million so far across its debut run.

The story follows a detective who returns to her small home town to work on the case of a missing boy, 10 years after her own daughter disappeared, and tries to find links between the two mysterious incidents. Wikander calls it a “Nordic crime meets mystery” drama.

After four years developing the idea, Palladium brought a 10-minute tape to SVT. “If they hadn’t had that 10 minutes, we would have said no, because the company had never produced a drama series before,” says Wikander.

The UK’s ITV Studios came in on the project very early, he adds, making it possible to take it to the next level of production, and is distributing the series worldwide. Finland’s Kinoproduktion is also a coproducer and the series has been pre-bought by YLE, TV2 Norway and Iceland’s RUV.

“The biggest difference of the last two to three years has been an increase in the amount spent on development, alongside international companies investing in or acquiring Nordic companies and increased budgets at the TV channels. More projects are now very well developed even before they reach the commissioning editors,” notes Another Park’s Gustaffson.

SVT has upped its development budget to help develop more new projects, a challenge many countries without the US-style showrunner/writers room approach face. “The best writers are occupied so we also need to focus also on the writers beneath them and on finding ways to get them together with producers to lift them,” Wikander explains.

Another Park is currently busy developing a number of (as yet undisclosed) film and TV projects across a range of genres, working with top writing talent. “We will go out to the market when we’re ready,” Gustaffson says. “We wanted to have that freedom when we created the company. But, obviously, we would also be open to start earlier with some partners if we shared the same vision at the development stage.”

However, Gustaffson says a key challenge for Nordic drama is the “limit to how much Swedish-language drama the local market can finance and consume.”

He adds: “There’s a bigger appetite for Nordic and Swedish drama than what TV stations commission, and that’s caused a bottleneck. A lot of interesting projects will come out of the increase in development money but this won’t result in more Swedish-language drama series – and it could mean some of the top talent start to write for companies in other countries because what they develop here won’t be financed.”

Yet Scandinavian producers remain unfazed by growing international competition in foreign-language drama from countries such as France, Spain, Israel and Turkey. Rather, they see greater potential synergies developing.

NRK is no stranger to global partnerships. It was the first Scandinavian broadcaster to strike out when it joined forces with new entrant Netflix to coproduce the crime comedy series Lilyhammer by Rubicon TV, which premiered in early 2012. Season three of the drama returned on flagship NRK1 last October, with the broadcaster this time taking a leaf out of Netflix’s book by also making the entire series available straight away on its online streaming service. Meanwhile, HBO Europe picked up remake rights to NRK’s six-part thriller Mammon.

“We were all taken and shaken by Netflix and House of Cards, when the whole series was made available on day one, while Netflix rose extremely quickly to around 650,000 subscribers in Sweden,” says Wikander. “But that has now levelled out, and one of the reasons for that – not unique to Netflix – is that 98% of its catalogue is old titles. The audience has now gone through it, and an output of four new titles a year, whether you’re a broadcaster like us or a Netflix, is too little to keep a subscriber audience with you.”

There’s another reason why distribution platforms like Netflix and HBO make interesting bedfellows: they can do niche drama, because ultimately they can aggregate lots of smaller audiences, says YLE’s Forsman. “In other countries where we have really strong public service companies with good audience shares and very well-educated audiences, we can do that too,” she notes.

“It’s really great to see channels like France’s Canal+ doing the same,” adds Forsman. “They want their drama to have deep characters and to speak about society in a new way, to be brave, risky and so on – all imperatives for public service broadcasters. We could have written the same words, yet they’re a commercial broadcaster.”

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,