Tag Archives: Camilla Ahlgren

Just one more

In the age of binge-watching, what makes a compelling drama that demands viewers watch the next episode immediately? DQ speaks to a host of writers to find out how they keep audiences hooked to the very end.

By now, the effects of the television streaming revolution are well known: there are more shows than ever, in more genres – and without the confines of a weekly schedule, viewers can and do binge multiple episodes in one sitting.

But what has been the effect of this changing landscape on writers in the business? Have they changed their approach to storytelling accordingly, knowing viewers may watch weekly or binge an entire season at once?

One of the best recent examples of a drama series that unashamedly draws viewers in with a plot full of twists and turns and demands watching more than a single episode in one go is Safe, the eight-part Netflix series starring Dexter’s Michael C Hall as a father searching for his missing daughter. During the course of the story, Hall’s Tom discovers revelations that turn the local community upside down as the truth behind a decades-old scandal is uncovered.

It’s exactly the kind of show you would expect from creator Harlan Coben, the bestselling US novelist known for writing fast-paced, gripping thrillers. He has since applied the same formula to the small screen, first in Sky1 drama The Five and more recently with Safe, which landed on Netflix in May.

On both series, Coben has worked alongside British writer Danny Brocklehurst and Red Production Company to craft the closed-ended stories, with Brocklehurst (Ordinary Lies, Come Home) then leading the scriptwriting process.

Michael C Hall in Safe, written by Harlan Coben and Danny Brocklehurst for Netflix

“For me, it’s always about the human angle. That’s the only thing I can ever really connect with,” Brocklehurst says when asked what makes compelling drama. “Whatever I’m doing, I always try to make my stuff have an emotional core. Even with the stuff I do with Harlan, although it’s quite fast-paced and hooky and we’re looking for those twists all the time, I do try to get the audience invested in the characters.

“There can be a really good mystery at the heart of something, there can be a whodunnit or whatever that keeps people watching, but in the end, what people really like are the characters and the world, and that’s what you have to spend quite a lot of time thinking about up front.”

A show like Safe is markedly different from Come Home, an emotional, character-led three-parter that explores the impact of a mother’s decision to leave her family. From the outset, Safe was designed to be binge-watched, the TV equivalent of one of Coben’s novels.

“The only problem with that is people expect that pace all the time,” Brocklehurst admits. “For example, in another series you might think about whether an episode could be a little slower or you might go off on a tangent for a bit, but what you’ve got to do is keep moving forward and servicing the plot. You want people to invest in the characters, but once you’ve set yourself up as a thriller that will have lots of twists and is going to keep surprising and wrong-footing the audience, you’ve got to keep that going as well.

“It’s like running a very elaborate relay race – you just keep passing the baton from episode to episode, hoping that people are compelled by the mystery, like the characters and want to get to the end.”

Deutschland 86, the hotly anticipated sequel to Anna and Joerg Winger’s Deutschland 85

Like Coben, Deutschland 83 creator Anna Winger also comes from a book-writing background and she agrees that propulsive storytelling – the ‘bingeability’ factor – is very novelistic. “Harlan’s books are definitely like that and I think we aim for that with this kind of television,” Winger says. “It is a different way to write. You’re not writing something that’s going to end easily. You need to load the gun at the beginning of a series – you get into the mindset of really pushing it and it’s exciting.”

Winger, who is putting the finishing touches to Cold War drama Deutschland 83’s sequel Deutschland 86 ahead of its debut this autumn, says some of her favourite shows, such as The Wire and Friday Night Lights, blend soap opera elements with societal themes and issues. “That multi-layered storytelling is what I’m most interested in. Friday Night Lights is officially about American football but it’s about everything in society, from race and class to health insurance,” she explains. “That’s something I try to do in Deutschland – to give it two levels at the same time. For people who are interested in history and politics, it’s all there but it’s also just a great adventure story about these characters.

“Then there are shows like Doctor Foster that take place out of time and place. It had no location. It strips away all of that – no history, no politics, no location. It’s all about the intense experience of this character, and it’s so propulsive. I watched the whole thing at once.”

Daragh Carville, the writer of forthcoming ITV crime drama The Bay, shares Winger’s affinity for shows that mix genre and family drama. “Something like Breaking Bad or The Sopranos where it’s both a crime drama and a family drama, that’s the sweet spot I really respond to,” he says. “It needs to have a narrative drive that comes from a combination of character and genre. Tone is really important. Breaking Bad is a perfect example of the impact of tonality where something is terrifying and funny at the same time. Something can be edge-of-your-seat exhilarating but also deeper, emotional and truthful.”

A show like Danish/Swedish crime drama Broen/Bron (The Bridge) epitomises the fine balance between character and plot, presenting characters that viewers want to watch and a storyline that compels them to get to the end of each of its four seasons.

Camilla Ahlgren says the likes of Killing Eve are ‘showing a different way of telling a story’

“It’s important that the characters are affected by what’s happening around them, that you can draw in personal stories sometimes,” explains Camilla Ahlgren, head writer of the Scandinavian hit. “I also think The Bridge is like a whodunnit: we have red herrings and the audience has to work out who the murderer is and you’re trying to surprise them. It’s a balance you have to work with. In the fourth season there were such strong personal stories for [lead characters] Saga and Henrik, so we could spend a little more time with them and not only the case.”

Except in the case of shows specifically made for bingeing, like Safe, Ahlgren says writers never consider whether viewers will watch episodes weekly or in one go. “We don’t even think the whole world is going to watch,” she jokes. “We try to find stories we like and find interesting. The Bridge is sometimes over the top or larger than life as well, so we try to do things we haven’t seen before or try to surprise the audience – in a good way.

“Often when I enjoy something, it’s the characters I’m looking for. I like Happy Valley very much; there are strong characters and it’s realistic. Shows like Killing Eve are something new, showing a different way of telling a story, with strong women and humour in it. I like the characters. That’s important for me.”

David Nicholls, the author and screenwriter behind Sky Atlantic drama Patrick Melrose, says all of the really compelling TV dramas come down to difficult characters – “characters who are complicated and not always likeable and are often quite wicked, insensitive, immoral and unpleasant,” he says. “I think I find that much more compelling than a hero’s recurring adventures. I like things to be gritty, tricky and painful.”

Nicholls confesses he’s “not a big binge-watcher,” and says he has rarely completed a series that runs to as many as seven seasons. “To me, often it’s like not finishing a novel,” he explains. “You get a little bit bored towards the end, episodes seem repetitive and you know the ending’s going to be anti-climactic and disappointing, so I’m constantly bailing on TV shows. The ones I’ve stuck with often have tricky characters with virtuoso performances at their centre.”

Breaking Bad, which Patrick Melrose writer David Nicholls says gripped him ‘like a novel’

The one exception, Nicholls admits, is Breaking Bad, which did grip him like a great novel. “So many other long-running series I’ve just bailed quite quickly because they get repetitive. But Breaking Bad I didn’t really feel that, I just sucked it up. Game of Thrones is my other great vice. Those are the two that keep me occupied.”

For Chris Lang, creator and writer of ITV historic crime drama Unforgotten (pictured top), the key to a compelling drama can be found at a more emotional level. “Truthfulness is what I seek in TV,” he says. “I’m looking for a truthfulness, honesty and insight into the human condition that surprises you. I’m also looking for believability, but not always. I want to be transported and heightened.”

Lang picks out the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale as an example of a series that is “constantly surprising and absolutely compelling.” He also highlights Billions, which he describes as “heightened but with brilliant dialogue and challenging,” while Happy Valley and Broken are both populated with “superb characters, all characterised by honesty.”

Echoing Lang, Keeping Faith creator and writer Matthew Hall believes compelling drama comes down to the emotional conflict inside the central characters. The more lead characters can be pulled in different directions and the more impossible choices they are confronted with, the more interesting they are, he says, adding: “That’s just a fundamental rule of drama.”

Hall says his two favourite drama series are Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, which he describes as “domestic dramas about people who ultimately just want their family to be happy and provided for. But life has conspired to make them do outrageous and impossible things to maintain that domestic stability. All the most successful TV dramas are about family in one way or another because that’s our universal experience.

Keeping Faith creator Matthew Hall says emotional conflict is key to compelling drama

“We love each other and hate each other with extreme passion, often at the same time. That’s what I wanted to inject into Keeping Faith, so Faith [who is searching for her missing husband and played by Eve Myles] married into this extended family and they both love her and hate her. The process of dramatisation is your central characters all have to have something huge at stake in the central narrative.”

Plot is also key, of course. Each season of Unforgotten opens with the discovery of a body and two detectives tasked with bringing the culprits to book. There are also a handful of seemingly unrelated characters who, through the course of the story, are each revealed to have been connected with the victim, with Lang expertly building the tension until the reveal at the season’s end.

“The plot is the device to open the story, and you have to get it right,” the writer says. “It’s one of the things that pulls people through. But I don’t use it to hang the characters on. Instead, I use it to explore interesting dynamics within families. There are endlessly interesting stories to tell in a dysfunctional family.”

Describing the process of piecing together a story as “Darwinian,” Lang continues: “It’s a to and fro relationship between character and narrative – it evolves, it’s not created. The characters and the plot emerge slowly. You go back to one or the other and keep doing that until you’re working through the episodes.”

Anna Winger

Hall, meanwhile, compares the construction of a story to chiselling out a statue. “There’s a finished work in there somewhere, you’ve just got to discover it,” he says.

There remains a debate, however, over the extent to which a drama should rely on plot devices like cliffhangers or red herrings to keep audiences gripped as the show carries them along to its conclusion. “If you’re making something for Netflix or Amazon, the ‘bingeability’ factor is significant,” Winger says. “In the past there were cliffhangers that made you come back the next week, but it’s not quite the same as that. It’s almost as if you have the luxury to write a whole story, a really long movie, because you know your audience will keep watching it, while we didn’t have that opportunity before.”

Carville says cliffhangers are needed but stresses that an “organic” structure is key to any successful drama. “Really what we want is to tell human stories and explore character,” he says. “They way you do that is through structure and a kind of narrative that has forward dynamics to it. Cliffhangers are really just turning points in the story and they always have to be emotional.”

Plot devices are “absolutely invaluable,” according to Hall, “but the point is they’re of secondary significance. If you just manufacture them, they’re not powerful, but if they’re motivated through the story, they work and become powerful.”

Brocklehurst, however, warns against the use of endings that cheat viewers in some way. “You’re always trying to play fair with the story you’re telling and not just suddenly creating a massive cheating hook just because you need something to make people watch the next one,” he notes.

Ultimately, the trick for writers is to “write something you want to watch,” Winger sums up. “The most important thing as a writer is that you want to write the next episode. You want to know what happens next and to just go down a rabbit hole with these stories.”

And if the writer wants to know what happens next, there’s a good chance viewers will too. How they watch it, however, is up to them.

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Bridge’s end

Camilla Ahlgren, head writer of The Bridge, opens up about the hit Swedish/Danish crime drama and reveals some of the secrets behind making the series.

After seven years and four seasons, Swedish/Danish drama Bron/Broen (The Bridge) came to an end earlier this year. The impact of the series on international television cannot be overstated, with the show arguably becoming the biggest Scandinavian hit of the last decade – a time when Nordic noir became a global phenomenon on the back of scripted series such as Forbrydelsen (The Killing), Borgen, Below the Surface and The Legacy.

The Bridge hasn’t disappeared from screens entirely, however, with both a German/Austrian version and a Malaysian/Singaporean remake in the works, following in the footsteps of The Bridge US, a Russian/Estonian effort and The Tunnel, set between the UK and France.

But Camilla Ahlgren, the head writer of the original series, is in no doubt that it was the right time to say goodbye to Swedish detective Saga Noren and her Danish counterpart Henrik Sabroe, with the series running one season longer than is usually the case for even the most successful Scandi shows.

“Of course, you’re a little bit sad to leave these great characters, but it’s also a relief,” she says. “It’s good to stop if we are on top of things. With other series, I get a little bit bored after the fifth season; I don’t think it’s going to get better. It was not an easy decision but we all agreed on it – producers and actors – and we had one story for Saga to tell and also to continue the story of Henrik and his family. We are quite happy we stopped and it’s good for us because we knew when we started [the fourth season] that this was going to be the end, so we could make the story the last thing we will see with Saga.”

L-R: Thure Lindhardt, Camilla Ahlgren, Hans Rosenfeldt and Sofia Helin

Ahlgren says the success of The Bridge, which was created by Hans Rosenfeldt, comes down to its mix of plot, often rooted in real-life political and social issues, and its characters – most notably the now iconic Saga and her partners during the series, Martin Rohde and Henrik.

But despite the importance of Saga, played by Sofia Helin to much acclaim, it was actually the character of Martin (Kim Bodnia) that was the starting point for the series, with the creative team having Bodnia in mind for the role from the off. The Danish half of the central partnership, he was pitched as a likeable family man with children. “And then what is the opposite of Martin?” Ahlgren asks. “They created Saga.”

“In the beginning, it was difficult to like her and we didn’t explain why she behaved like she did. But she was a very good cop. That’s also something good about the show – we don’t explain everything. The audience has to learn more and more about her during the season. At the end of the day, they started to love her. She’s also a character who can say everything. She speaks out loud what she thinks.”

Through the four seasons, the dark secrets and personal stories of the central characters were slowly revealed, to the point that they became just as important as the main case in the final season. Ahlgren says it was important the detectives were affected by the crimes they were investigating, often finding links and parallels to situations in their private lives.

The first two seasons of The Bridge saw Helin’s Saga working with Martin, played by Kim Bodnia

Saga is a particular case in point, with not much being known about the detective at the outset, despite her obvious social anxieties. But that allowed the writers to shape her character in response to the various crimes she investigated as the series progressed.

“At the beginning of the first season, if you looked at Saga’s character description, you wouldn’t know much about her. She was very lonely and had no parents. Suddenly, in the first season, it was the producer who asked if Saga could become affected by the case in some way, where we had a young girl shot in a garage. We thought maybe if Saga had a sister who committed suicide, this could remind her of her sister. So we created a scene at the graveyard, and it’s the one and only scene where we have snow, because we shot it later on.”

This plot point was carried into the second season with the revelation that Saga’s sister committed suicide after being mistreated by their parents. “So we constructed Saga’s personal story along the way,” Ahlgren continues. “It’s also good not to write a thick character bible in the beginning because you never know how the process will develop. Then you can do something that you have created. We were lucky because Saga never said, ‘My parents are dead,’ so then her parents came up in the third season. It’s a very interesting way to work, and the process suddenly creates a story you didn’t know in the beginning.”

For every action, there is a reaction – and The Bridge’s writing team made sure they discussed in depth how characters would react to events as they unfolded. One of the biggest decisions they made early on was to kill off Martin’s son in season one. “We discussed that a lot,” Ahlgren says. “For every decision, you have to know how you do it, why and how it will affect the characters. That’s the most important thing, and then we can tell stories like Martin’s son and how he can relate to this, and also with Henrik.” Following Bodnia’s decision to leave the series, season three introduced Henrik as Saga’s new partner, a man still grieving the loss of his two daughters after they disappeared several years earlier, though that mystery was wrapped up by the series finale.

Thure Lindhardt (right) joined the cast as Henrik Sabroe for seasons three and four

“I also liked very much taking in a new main character. We had prepared for Martin for the third season and suddenly Kim didn’t want to do it. Then we had to create a totally new character and new stories. It was a challenge but it also brought new energy in the third season. That’s difficult when you do season after season – it’s difficult not to repeat yourself.”

The often harsh landscapes and bleak production design certainly give The Bridge a unique look that has added to the series’ appeal for international viewers. But Ahlgren points another, more subtle, difference between Scandinavian series and others around the world that has made the series stand out from the crowd, namely the way the dialogue is written and delivered.

“There is a difference in dialogue because the emotion in the scene is often between the lines,” she says. “We talk less, or explain less, because we think you can see it in the actor. We don’t talk about [emotions] either in our culture. Maybe we have less emotional dialogue. We also like to watch new faces, new characters, new actors. It’s something new when you watch our series.”

Ahlgren is currently developing new shows of her own, but taking up most of her time is upcoming Netflix drama Quicksand, the streamer’s first Swedish original. Based on Malin Persson Giolito’s novel Störst av Allt (Quicksand) and produced by FLX (Bonusfamiljen/The Bonus Family), it sees high-school student Maja Norberg put on trial for murder following a mass shooting at a prep school in a Stockholm suburb. And when the events of that tragic day are revealed, so too are the private details about her relationship with Sebastian Fagerman and his dysfunctional family.

“I’m the head writer and we are in the middle of the writing process. We start filming this autumn,” says Ahlgren, adding: “It’s a new experience for me to work with Netflix. Right now it’s quite similar in the script process, but sometimes you have to explain emotions. Then we’ll see how it ends. It’s quite similar so so far, so good.”

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End of a Saga

As the final season of Bron/Broen (The Bridge) arrives in the UK, actors Sofia Helin and Thure Lindhardt, creator Hans Rosenfeldt and head writer Camilla Ahlgren reflect on the success of the internationally acclaimed series.

Swedish detective Saga Norén, portrayed on screen for seven years by Sofia Helin, has become one of television’s most iconic police officers. At once brilliant, straight-talking and socially awkward, she has become a figurehead of the Nordic noir wave that has captivated audiences since The Bridge first aired in 2011.

Yet it could have all been so very different. Had the writers not had a change of heart during those early days plotting season one, Saga would not have survived to see season two.

“In very early drafts, Saga died in episode nine,” series creator Hans Rosenfeldt reveals. “She was stabbed. It was actually one of our exec producers who said very early on that wasn’t going to happen, so we changed it.”

Hindsight, of course, is a wonderful thing and it is fascinating now to think how the series might have panned out had its lead character been killed off so early on. But thankfully the producers gave her a stay of execution – one that has continued to the end of season four and the show’s finale.

Viewers in Sweden and Denmark already know the fates of Saga and her Danish police partner Henrik Sabroe, played by Thure Lindhardt, as the eight-episode final run debuted in Scandinavia earlier this year. And now British viewers have the chance to see how it ends, with season four launching tonight on BBC2, having been promoted from the traditional Saturday night slot reserved for non-English drama on BBC4.

The start of The Bridge season four sees Saga in prison

Centring on what’s described as heart-stopping concluding case that tests the detectives’ special relationship to its limits both professionally and personally, season four opens when the body of a woman is found close to the titular Øresund bridge between Denmark and Sweden. It is found to be that of the head of the Danish immigration board. But since Saga has been jailed for the murder of her mother, Henrik must investigate the case with his new partner Jonas (Mikael Birkkjaer).

As is usually the case with Scandinavian dramas, contemporary themes loom large in the new season of The Bridge, which this time focuses on issues of identity.

“We always work with a double story – it’s a crime story and we also want to say something about our society,” explains head writer Camilla Ahlgren. “That’s why this season, with identity, we found we could apply it to Saga and Henrik’s characters.

Helin picks up: “Saga wonders, ‘Why do I live? What do I do here and who am I?’ I have a sense that taking away her police identity makes her go onto very shaky ground. That was a really interesting path to take.”

The story will also look at the effect of immigration on both Sweden and Denmark, conceived as it was at the height of the European refugee crisis that contributed to the Øresund bridge being changed from an open road to a strict border between the two countries.

“This is fiction, but we like to see what we can find to talk about in our society,” Ahlgren says. “Now with the bridge and a border that we’re not used to, that’s how it all started. We still have to show our ID when we go from Denmark to Sweden and it’s a very weird thing to do for me. You shouldn’t have to do that, in my opinion, but that’s how it is right now.”

Thure Lindhardt joined the cast as Henrik Sabroe in season three

Broadcasters in Scandinavia are keen that contemporary series have something to say about modern society, an attitude that Rosenfeldt says can add depth to the story and characters on screen.

“When we started to write season four, everything was about the refugee crisis in Sweden and Denmark, so it was obvious we had to touch it,” he says. “There are going to be a lot of topics in there across eight hours, but we started with that one because it was so obvious that, if we were going to do a cross-border thing for the fourth time, we couldn’t just ignore the fact the bridge has a slightly different meaning today than it had in 2011 when it was a road to freedom and Europe. Now it’s actually a border.”

Produced by Filmlance International in Sweden and Nimbus Film in Denmark, the drama is distributed worldwide by Endemol Shine International and has been remade in six territories, most recently via a copro between Singapore and Malaysia.

And the story that runs through season four, in which viewers will discover more about Saga and Henrik’s backgrounds, also contributed to the decision to end The Bridge at its peak, rather than continuing to bring the characters back and risk devaluing the success of the show.

“There are very few series that actually create a peak in season five, six or seven,” Rosenfeldt says. “They tend to go the other way. So we said let’s not be one of those shows where people say, ‘Oh, The Bridge is still on. I loved the first ones.’ Let’s not be that series. Let’s make four really good shows and then say this is it, this is the story we have to tell. Not everything has to go on forever.”

Following the departure of Saga’s original Danish partner Martin (played by Kim Bodnia) in season two, Lindhardt joined the cast in season three. “I wasn’t really worried [about joining the show],” he says. “I got this script and I read this character and immediately I wanted to play that part. My outlook was more how to interpret this character who was so brilliantly written.

Helin and Lindhardt film scenes for the show’s final outing

“I was pretty lucky that no one knew who Saga’s new partner was, so I had nine great months where I could work privately, creating the character without having to answer any questions about how it was to follow someone else.”

That was also partly down to the writers, who initially set Saga up with strong-willed detective Hanne Thomsen (Kirsten Olesen), whose relationship with Saga immediately became hostile. Henrik was introduced concurrently with a mysterious storyline relating to his wife and children, and was only partnered with Saga several episodes into the story.

“A lot of people thought she actually got a female partner but didn’t like her, which is away from how she was with a male character who liked her,” says Rosenfeldt, who is also the creator of ITV thriller Marcella. “So I think we tricked people there and they got interested in Henrik for other reasons and then, oh, he’s a cop as well. It eased the transition to not have him there in the first scene together with Saga.”

Though both Henrik and Saga return for season four, one noticeable change is the fact the main investigation is set in Denmark, rather than in Sweden’s Malmö as it has been for the previous three seasons, which meant a new police station setting for the cast and crew.

“But the biggest change, what we’ve never done before, is we left the city for this small village that we see at the very end. We’ve never done that before because we’re not big fans of nature,” Rosenfeldt jokes, with a nod towards the series’ trademark dark and brooding city landscapes. “It’s pretty, it’s green and has trees and you can see squirrels. But it was a really depressing village. So that’s a big set for us, a big change – a completely new location but also nature.”

So long to the city and so long to The Bridge. Saying goodbye to the series was “emotional, not difficult,” Helin adds. “I’m happy with the ending and kind of relieved and content. So I feel happy but a bit of separation sadness from friends and colleagues.

“I’m not sad because I can talk to her at any minute,” she says of her character. “For anyone else, they have to see the series from the beginning. I was so satisfied with the brilliant ending so I’m not sad, I’m proud.”

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