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Boom town

Norwegian period drama Lykkeland (State of Happiness) dramatises the true story of the country’s oil boom in 1969. Writer Mette B Bølstad and executive producer Synnøve Hørsdal tell DQ about the origins of the series and how they avoided it becoming a history lesson.

A short stroll between offices located on the banks of the Akerselva, which runs through the Norwegian capital of Oslo, proved fortuitous for screenwriter Mette M Bølstad. Before lunch, she had finished working for Monster Scripted on NRK drama Nobel, for which she would later win the best TV drama script award at the Goteborg Film Festival. After lunch, she made the quick walk next door to Maipo Film, where she agreed to write long-gestating series Lykkeland (State of Happiness).

That was in spring 2015. Three years later, Lykkeland is among the hottest new dramas coming out of Scandinavia, having scooped two awards at the inaugural Canneseries event in April this year – best music and best screenplay, with writer Bølstad again picking up the prize.

Based on the real events that changed a nation, Lykkeland is set in the summer of 1969 in the small Norwegian coastal town of Stavanger. International oil companies have been test-drilling for years, but nothing has been found and they are in the process of leaving. Phillips Petroleum, however, is contracted to drill a final hole – and on Christmas Eve 1969, the gas flare at the oil rig Ocean Viking is lit. The largest oil basin in history has been discovered, and everything is about to change.

“The story is about the oil that came to Norway,” Bølstad explains. “In a way, it’s about the beginning of modern society, so the characters are young, they’re in their early 20s. It’s a poor place. There’s not a lot of work. It’s going down. So it’s kind of like a treasure hunt in a Klondike town. It feels almost like an old Western.”

Lykkeland producer Synnøve Hørsdal at this yera’s Canneseries

Lykkeland has been in development, in one form or another, for the best part of a decade, based on an idea by Maipo CEO Synnøve Hørsdal and Siv Rajendram Eliassen. But when Bølstad joined the project, it accelerated towards production. Filming wrapped in December last year at the end of a 105-day shoot and, after the first two episodes debuted in Cannes this month, it will launch on Norwegian broadcaster NRK this autumn. DR Sales is handling international distribution.

“We had talked about it and I was very interested in the subject matter, and also because I quite like doing television,” Bølstad says of joining the series, having worked with Hørsdal on various projects previously. “You know this is something you’re going to live with for three years, at least, so it needs to be something that’s appealing – and that has to be the subject matter, not the way in which you tell the story. That’s just the job. But I thought this was something I wanted to know about, so I could spend a lot of time on it. It was the combination of being at Maipo and working with something I wanted to do.”

The series follows the stories of four main characters – the town mayor’s secretary, a diver, an American lawyer and a woman from a deeply religious family – and how their lives are transformed, for better or worse, by the oil strike.

But Hørsdal plays down any descriptions of Lykkeland as Norway’s Mad Men, owing to its 1960s setting and fashion, noting that his series plays closer to the characters and the universal dilemmas they face.

“The main thing is that we don’t do anything that isn’t affected by the oil,” she says. “We don’t have scenes that are not linked to the oil. The main thing is that you don’t do a backdrop story – it’s not playing out in front of the coal miners’ strike. You need to be part of it. You need to move the world in that way.

The drama focuses on how oil changed Norway

“It was difficult to do young people like that and put them in important arenas without it being a construction. So that was quite a big job in the beginning. It was just getting them in the right place so it made sense, and then you could start telling the story.”

Set in the coastal town of Stavanger, it is a story specific to its setting and time. The series attempts to balance the family stories with what was happening in wider society during that period, without making it overly political and, most importantly, preventing the eight-part drama from becoming a history lesson.

“It is such an elegant way of having a drama in a historical setting without it being a history lesson or being too political,” says Hørsdal. “It is about the choices you make that matter, that your vote matters and it’s you as individuals who make the society you live in. It’s not someone else. Somewhere down there, this is the message. At this time, at that place, it was a bit easier to see that some of the choices they made had a tremendous impact on the rest of Norway. And different choices could have been made as well; things could have been really different.”

Around a third of the production was filmed on location in Stavanger, where the producers wanted to capture the unique landscapes and the town’s specific dialect. Further exterior and interior scenes were captured in Oslo and further afield in Belgium.

“It’s not a show that has one location we always go back to, so we jump quite a lot,” Hørsdal explains. “The line producer and the production manager spent two months working out the schedule. We have done TV before but nothing as big as this.”

Lykkeland’s creators emphasise that, despite the shared time period, the show is not ‘Norway’s Mad Men’

Filming also took place on a real oil rig in a fjord close to Bergen, further up the coast, before it was to be taken away for recycling. Visual effects then placed it in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

“We had to change some of the crew because some of them had vertigo and it was tough to get up onto the rig,” Hørsdal reveals. “For me personally, shooting in Stavanger and the landscape where it actually took place was one of the biggest moments. I really felt like it was the real thing.”

Season one runs from 1969 until 1972, while a potential season two, which is already in development, is set to jump forward five years to 1977.

“Mette is already writing season two,” says Hørsdal, who envisions the series reaching the present day over five seasons. “She’s a fantastic writer to work with. She’s extremely good at taking a specific scene or setting and making it relevant to the characters.”

She adds: “We’re ready for season two. We started developing it quite a while ago. The way this drama is made is moulded. We can go into production quite quickly and we’re really ready to do another season. There’s lots more material.”

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Home advantage

Former professional footballer John Carew teams up with Ane Dahl Torp to star in Norwegian drama Heimebane (Home Ground). They join the creative team behind the project to discuss the series, which centres on an ambitious female coach breaking into the men’s game.

Ane Dahl Torp is one of the most famous actors in Norway, having starred in series such as Kodenavn Hunter (Code Name Hunter) and Okkupert (Occupied). But she nearly turned down the lead role in local drama Heimebane (Home Ground).

She was in line to play Helena Mikkelsen, the coach of a successful women’s football team who leaves her job to become the first female coach of a Norwegian top-division men’s side. Ambitious and determined, Helena was drawn as a character willing to put a few noses out of joint to prove that women are just as good as men. To some, she wasn’t very nice.

Then in between casting meetings, the scripts were changed and Helena was rewritten to be more likeable. In turn, she was more deferential in the way she spoke, a move Torp says “totally ruined” the character.

“It upset me so bad I was shaking because I felt some man has read this and felt, ‘I don’t like her,’” she says. “Somebody has read this and said they don’t like her or I don’t believe in her or understand her, and it upset me so bad. For the first time in my life, I thought maybe men don’t like me if I don’t act like I want them to like me. So I took it personally, the whole rewriting.

Ane Dahl Torp takes the lead in Heimebane

“I didn’t know if they were going to offer me the part but I didn’t want it anymore. They ruined my dream, which is not so important, but more importantly they ruined the wonderful character for the audience. When you have a character I believe could really have a say and an impact, they killed her. So it was terrible.”

However, it was Torp’s reaction that earned her the part and forced the production to rethink the changes and revert to the original characterisation of Helena.

“When I came up with the idea, I thought we needed a woman who was going to go into this club and say, ‘I know you don’t believe me because I’m a woman but I’m the right person for this job.’ That was a key scene in the first episode, and that also informed a lot about her character,” series creator Johan Fasting explains. “She needs to be driven, ambitious and not take any compromises.

“But if you write a character like that, some people reading won’t like her because she’s unlikeable in many respects. So many of the first feedbacks we got on the scripts were she’s not likeable and you should make her more likeable. That didn’t sound like the show we were making but we tried this and softened her. It never felt right and luckily when we were casting, Ane came in and said, ‘This is bullshit, I don’t want to do this.’ We thought, ‘She’s right, what are we doing?’ We went back and said, ‘This is the character, and if that’s not the character, that’s not the show.’ And we were allowed to make the show we wanted to make.”

In the series, viewers follow Helena’s journey into a man’s world where she is not respected or listened to and attempts to overcome the ingrained bias against her.

Former Norway international footballer John Carew also stars

The biggest challenge for Torp, however, was to throw herself into the world of football, as she admits she wasn’t previously a fan. To help her become immersed in the sport, she spent a lot of time at her local club, Vålerenga IF, where she would spend days watching training and talking to the players and staff – even walking out of the tunnel with the players when they played a pre-season friendly against Manchester United last summer.

“It was really fun to dive into a new universe because so many people are interested in it,” she says. “And where I live, football is a very big part of the culture. My husband is also a fan of the local team and when you walk around everybody has these flags outside. I’ve hated it but now I have the supporters’ gear. It’s definitely a job to get to love football when you don’t.”

Torp’s co-star John Carew is no stranger to football, having played professionally in Norway, Spain, Italy, Turkey, France and the UK across a 15-year career that saw him make more than 90 appearances for Norway’s national team. So was he wary of taking his first major acting role in a drama about a world he knows more intimately than most?

“It’s much more than about football,” he says of the 10-part series, which is coproduced by Motlys and public broadcaster NRK and distributed by DR Sales. “It’s more about my personal life and my story within the story, which makes the most impact for me.”

Carew plays Michael Ellingsen, a player who is facing up to the end of his career and the issues that come with it, such as his ageing body and the fact he is no longer the darling of the dressing room, with younger superstars fighting for the limelight.

Torp was initially reluctant to take the role due her character being watered down in a rewrite that was later reversed

“He has a lot of things to deal with but if I can’t do this, I should forget about my acting career,” he says. “I was in the changing room every day for 20 years, and every year there were one or two players who were at the end of their career. I was always seeing how they would deal with certain things that changed in their life. I have a lot of football friends who couldn’t deal with it and ended up with alcohol and drug problems, no money left and broken marriages. And it’s all related to not being able to cope. So it was very possible for me to put myself in this situation.”

There are no aliens, time travel or high-concept elements to the series, but Torp still describes Heimebane as a science-fiction series, as the central premise – a woman leading a men’s football team – is yet to happen in the real world.

“It can happen at any time but today it’s science fiction,” she says. “Also it’s very rare to see a female character in film or television who has professional problems and not personal problems. You hardly see that in fiction and it’s very important for the audience to see this.”

Development on Heimebane first began in 2014, with filming taking place last year. But when executive producer Yngve Sæther first approached producer Vilje Kathrine Hagen and Fasting about making a series about a football club and its coach, they were both hesitant.

“We love Friday Night Lights and we’re not going to do it better than that, so why do it?” says Hagen of his initial reaction, referring to the seminal NBC series about a high-school American football team. But as a writer, Fasting has always put women in the lead so they started to imagine a football series with a female coach in charge.

Vilje Kathrine Hagen

“Then it suddenly became an interesting story,” Hagen adds. “I’m not interested in football at all so, for me, this is not a show about football. It’s about a woman going into a man’s world. Football is an interesting setting because I feel the development of female coaches is so far behind. So if we wanted to tell this story, it was perfect to put it into a football arena.”

Fasting put together a traditional writers room to flesh out the season, bringing together three other writers and a couple of consultants to help break down the plotlines. He would then write through each script before filming began.

He also worked alongside lead director Arild Andresen, who shot the first two episodes, to set the style of the series, which they agreed should be authentic and visceral, with lots of energy.

“What’s strong about Johan’s writing is not only that he writes great dialogue, but he’s quite selective about his descriptions so that they feel relevant and inspiring and give me ideas,” Andresen says. “He writes in a very visual way but he’s very precise and very selective, so what’s in the script matters, which you can tell as a reader.”

Filming took place both in the studio and on location in Norway capital Oslo, and the town of Ulsteinvik in the West, picked both for its stunning location among the fjords, surrounded by mountains, and its inhabitants’ passion for football. Match scenes were filmed at Ulsteinvik’s stadium and authenticity was particularly important as the show was set inside the real Norwegian Premier League, using real clubs and real players, though the club led by Torp’s Helena is fictional.

“There are so many expectations about how to show football in a believable way,” Andresen adds. “People are so used to watching games on television, so we had to invent our own language and make it character-driven more than sports-driven. It’s a lot about what you’re not showing and what you’re focusing on, and which story about which characters you’re telling at that moment. The football pitch is the stage where this specific story is taking place.”

The stage is now set for a second season, which was ordered by broadcaster NRK before season one debuted in March. Season two is already lined up for a January 2019 debut.

“The world [of this show] lends itself really well to several seasons,” Fasting concludes. “Every season would just follow a new football season and there are millions of stories – you can never run out of inspirational stories. I could just keep going.”

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