Tag Archives: Finland

Unwanted guest

Following appearances on screen this year in Sanditon and A Confession, Kate Ashfield tells DQ about continuing her burgeoning writing career by penning Finnish psychological drama Huone 301 (Man in Room 301).

Kate Ashfield

Two years after her first writing project debuted, Kate Ashfield has found time between acting roles to pick up her pen once again. But while Channel 4’s Born to Kill, co-written with Tracey Malone, was the study of an apparently model teenager with hidden psychopathic tendencies, her latest project is entirely a family affair.

Produced for Finnish SVoD platform Elisa Viihde, psychological drama Huone 301 (Man in Room 301) tells the story of the Kurtti family, whose lives change irrevocably one fateful night. Years later, the secrets of that night start to unravel on a family vacation in Greece, pushing their family ties to the limit.

Ashfield, best known for her role opposite Simon Pegg in comedy-horror film Shaun of the Dead, was recently seen on screen in ITV period drama Sanditon and the same broadcaster’s true crime drama A Confession. But although she considers acting and writing on a level par, she says she is enjoying the creative freedom that comes with writing.

She began work on Man in Room 301 shortly after Born to Kill aired in 2017, when UK producer Wall to Wall Media approached her with a one-page outline for a drama about a British family that goes on holiday to Spain, only to suspect a man staying in the same apartment building is the grown-up killer of their three-year-old nephew.

After meeting with Elisa, Ashfield wrote a treatment for the show, turning it into a six-part series about a Finnish family that travels to Greece, with the action set across two timelines. The platform gave the green light after reading the first script, with the series now set to launch on December 19.

Man in Room 301 looks at universal themes around a family and its secrets

“The starting point was if someone was 12 when they did it [the crime] and were now 24, would you recognise them? Would it even be them?” the writer tells DQ, acknowledging the show’s similarities to the Jamie Bulger case in the UK, in which two 10-year-old boys were convicted of abducting and killing two-year-old Jamie in 1993. “But it’s very different in Finland because they don’t criminalise children like we do.” (The age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales is 10 and in Scotland it’s 12, having been raised from eight this year.)

“When the story was reset in Finland, it became more attractive to me as an idea because we’re such a small country and we have such black and white views, whereas in another country it’s not that clear cut. The criminal age in Finland is 15, so if something like that did happen, they would just stay at home. They’d probably get counselling, they might move school but they might not. It would just be treated in a whole different way, so that makes it a slightly greyer subject matter, which is always interesting.”

The story introduces a multi-generational family who go on holiday to Greece, only for the grandfather to suspect the man staying in room 301 is the killer. The two timelines, set 12 years apart, then slowly reveal how the events in the past and the present day collide.

Cameras roll on Man in Room 301

For Ashfield, writing Man in Room 301 offered her the chance to delve into another culture and write about universal themes involving a family and its secrets. But the slow, brooding thriller, which is directed by Mikko Kuparinen, posed several challenges for her, not least the cultural differences between Finland and the UK.

“They tend to not want anything to be too dark,” she explains. “The death of a child is terrible and they don’t want to focus on that in the way some UK television series might do. We’re also a lot more emotional and physical with each other than they are. They don’t say a lot; it all has to be pared down. Watching Nordic series, it’s less expressive. If you wrote a scene where they greet and hug each other, it just isn’t Finnish. They’d say, ‘We’d never do that.’ So it’s mainly in the way they relate to each other that’s different.”

Ashfield would regularly travel to Helsinki for meetings with Elisa, Wall to Wall and production partner Warner Bros International Television Production Finland. Scripts were initially written in English before the shooting versions were translated into Finnish.

Man in Room 301 centres on a Finnish family with a tragic past on holiday in Greece

“Because it’s about relationships, all those things are universal, so that was easy to negotiate in a different language,” the writer says. “It was just learning about the landscape and the culture, which was different. Because we were doing it with Warner Bros Finland, they were in script meetings and talked to anything they felt would be more appropriate or ring more true to people in Finland. I had one character house-sitting for somebody and they said, ‘We just don’t have any reference of that.’ It’s just the smallest things, you could never know what [the notes] were going to be when you sent the scripts across. That made it an interesting experience.”

In between script meetings, Ashfield would explore Helsinki and the surrounding area to build a picture of the landscape, the types of properties and the lifestyles of the people who live there to better inform her writing. One example is when she wrote that a character would break into the post box of another character in an apartment building lobby, only to discover mail is delivered to each individual apartment and lobby-set post boxes don’t exist.

“It’s really strange little things like that that you keep coming up against. You just wouldn’t guess it. You can’t break a door down in Finland; because of the weather, they’re much stronger. Also, the Finns, because they have such a strong welfare system and have universal basic income, they don’t have homelessness and they’re just inherently better people in terms of not breaking the law. If their child was drink driving and hit another car, they would take them to the police station to confess. Here we might say, ‘Well no one got hurt and we won’t tell anyone.’ But they wouldn’t do that because it’s just wrong. All that stuff is quite interesting and you end up looking at your own culture in a different way.”

The drama’s director Mikko Kuparinen

Unlike on Born to Kill, Ashfield wrote all six scripts herself, comparing the process to completing a “massive jigsaw” as she contemplated how the story would play out across the different timelines and use the juxtaposition between the scenic Finnish countryside and the sun-drenched Greek landscape, where Athens-based Inkas Film and TV Productions provided coproduction support. Warner Bros holds international remake rights while APC Studios is distributing the original series.

“You also have to put story hooks in,” she continues. “This has no ad breaks [in each episode] so it’s not like Born to Kill where you have to have a hook every act out. That in itself becomes slightly different storytelling. It’s very much character-led, especially as Finns are more contained emotionally so you need to really get into their minds. It becomes more psychological in that sense.”

An actor now embarking on a writing career, Ashfield says she wants every part to be good, from the grandma to the young girl, with scenes viewers won’t expect and the ability to shock and challenge the audience. The series stars Antti Virmavirta (The Other Side of Hope) and Kaija Pakarinen (Devil’s Bride) as the parents, Jussi Vatanen (The Unknown Soldier) and Andrei Alén (Rig 45) as the grown-up children and Leena Pöysti (Laugh or Die) and Kreeta Salminen (All The Sins) as their wives.

Ashfield faced cultural differences between Finland and the UK when writing the series

“It’s also about the dialogue,” she notes. “I’ve been acting for years and you just want everything you get your characters to do and say to be authentic and not expositional or contradictory emotionally. I get a real feeling of the characters, and that’s the joy. That happens when I write with other people as well. I know those people, I know what they’re like. That’s part of it for me.”

With Man in Room 301, she hopes to entertain viewers with a story that takes them out of their own lives, while also prompting them to imagine what they might do in a similar situation to the characters on screen.

“Hopefully you relate to all of the characters and think, in that circumstance, ‘I could have done that,’” she adds. “Who knows how one will react. I wanted to make them all as likeable as possible in that scenario.”

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Diplomacy rules

The true story of a heroic diplomat’s actions in the face of General Pinochet’s Chilean revolution forms the bases for Finnish period drama Invisible Heroes. Writer Tarja Kylmä and YLE executive Liselott Forsman tell DQ about developing the series.

If the challenge for television executives in today’s crowded drama landscape is to find local stories that have the potential to resonate with international audiences, Finnish public broadcaster YLE is leading the way.

Currently in production is The Paradise, a crime drama set among the ex-pat Finnish community living in the Spanish town of Fuengirola, dubbed the Finnish capital of Spain. It is due to air on YLE this autumn.

Invisible Heroes is set in the middle of the Pinochet revolution in Chile

Before then, the network has earmarked a spring launch for Invisible Heroes, a political thriller set in Chile during General Pinochet’s military coup in 1973.

Inspired by true events, the story follows the remarkable exploits of Finnish diplomat Tapani Brotherus who, while working in secret, helped secure asylum in Europe for more than 2,000 Chilean citizens whose lives were under threat.

The cast is led by Pelle Heikkilä who stars as Brotherus, Ilkka Villi as fellow diplomat Ilkka Jaamala and Sophia Heikkilä as Lysa Brotherus. Mikael Persbrandt plays Swedish ambassador Harald Edelstam, while Chilean actor Cristian Carvajal and Germany’s Sönke Möhring also appear.

It’s based on a story that was “hidden for 35 years,” says Finnish screenwriter Tarja Kylmä, until a documentary about Swedish ambassador Harald Edelstam gave some clues to Brotherus’ actions. A book was then published about him in 2010, which caught the interest of YLE’s head of drama Jarmo Lampela.

“One day when I was cleaning snow out of my garden and he [Lampela] just arrived with a book and said, ‘Read this, it’s wonderful. If you like it you can write it,’” Kylmä recalls, speaking to DQ at Série Series in France last year. “I read it and it’s a wonderful story. I did some interviews and found some more interesting material that was not in the book, about this great love story between two youngsters, and then I started writing.”

Owing to the source material, the story was the perfect coproduction opportunity. Finland’s Kaiho Republic partnered with Parox in Chile, with YLE commissioning the drama in association with Chilevisión. Kylmä was also paired with a Chilean writer, Manuela Infante, who was able to help with research and add an authentic Chilean voice to the story, which mostly takes place in the South American country.

“I’m the main writer so I made the big decisions about the characters, but we did have different layers because she was writing the Chilean approach and I was writing the Finns and they had to meet all the time, so it was a very good collaboration,” Kylmä says. “I loved it. Manuela’s a theatre writer so she loved the very close collaboration.”

YLE’s head of drama Jarmo Lampela and writer Tarja Kylmä

The screenwriter travelled to Chile to outline the series with Infante in November 2017, discussing the central character of Brotherus and the decisions that led to actions. She describes him as an idealistic diplomat who heads to the capital, Santiago, to make trade deals. But when the coup begins, he has to make a quick decision about whether to help hundreds of refugees escape the country, eventually securing them safe passage to Finland and East Germany while acting against Finnish policy.

“He’s told to send them away so he has to do it illegally. He might lose his job doing that so it’s a story about finding your voice and finding the courage in yourself,” Kylmä says. “After keeping them hidden from his government and Pinochet’s military forces, there’s another problem because what is he doing if he’s sending them safely to Europe? Is he making the resistance weaker? So there’s a dilemma in those people leaving. What is he doing to this country if he’s hiding them and sending them away? So it’s this battle inside him, while he’s also trying to protect his family from harm.”

The six-part series, which has been picked up for international distribution by Stockholm-based Eccho Rights, never strays far from the truth. In fact, the names of the characters are the names of real diplomats, many of whom had the chance to read the scripts. But as you might expect with any television drama, there are some fictional moments woven into the story. Kylmä says that after she completed her research, the real people involved became her characters to play with. “It has to be drama driven and not fact driven,” she notes. “It’s difficult [for the real people] when you know the wall wasn’t blue or something, but they accept it.”

Invisible Heroes is another entry into the increasingly popular trend for factual drama, alongside series such as Tokyo Trial, The Interrogation of Tony Martin and A Very English Scandal.

“It’s very important because we’re talking about refugees here and how to accept them in our country,” say Kylmä, noting the topicality of the subject. “It’s a problem for all of Europe, and suddenly we have something like this that happened in the 1970s. It’s the problems we are facing now. It’s a great trend because we can have distance but still wonder, ‘How would I have reacted in that situation? How could I have helped?’ We can face the questions in the present tense in drama.”

The period drama centres on Finnish diplomat Tapani Brotherus

The writing process took 18 months, beginning in January 2017. “It was fast. I researched and wrote, we made the outlines together [with Infante] and last spring was all out writing,” she continues. “This is like a film in six parts. I felt my role was a typical screenwriter. We cooperated with the directors — Mika Kurvinen and Alicia Scherson — and when filming started, we handed the baton to them.”

It was during trips to Chile that Kylmä was able to visit all the real locations featured in the story and grasp the mood of the country in the 1970s. There was also daily communication between Kylmä, Infante and producer Leonora González, who read scripts and gave notes. “With the time difference, you’re working two shifts because I work morning and afternoon in Finland and then the day starts in Chile and they start sending questions,” she reveals. “When I wake up in the morning there are more questions. The DOP is Finnish and the main director but the rest of the team is Chilean. So the director has been meeting them so he knows what’s going on.”

Scriptwriting also took more time as the story features dialogue in Finnish, Spanish, Swedish and German. Kylmä wrote in Finnish, Infante wrote in Spanish and then translations were made from one to another. Then the dialogue was edited to include all languages. “We have to be honest to the language they used. They didn’t speak English in 1973 Chile,” the writer adds.

Liselott Forsman, YLE’s executive producer of international projects, comes from a background of coproductions, having worked for the Swedish arm of YLE for many years. “We coproduced everything because we had such a small budget,” she says. “But it was very easy because the Nordics were there, and also with the Baltic countries we had natural European coproduction partners.”

But when she moved to the network’s Finnish department almost six years ago, “people told me it’s not possible to coproduce in Finnish. It’s easy when you’re Swedish. Then Danish dramas started to air in countries that had never heard the Danish language before,” she says. “That was really nice. Everything was getting more international, so in the past five years it has really been a booming thing. It would have been much more difficult [to make Invisible Heroes] five years ago but now it’s exactly what everyone wants to do.”

The drama was copoduced by Finland’s Kaiho Republic and Parox in Chile

Forsman says YLE’s Lampela, who speaks Spanish, was keen to find a Spanish-language project, while Parox proved to be an exciting partner, owing to the advancing television production cultures in both Chile and Finland.

“Of course there are language problems but nothing major,” she says of production. “Things have changed in Latin America, and one thing is the acting. Usually in melodramas, the acting was very different, it was not as naturalistic as we are used to in the Nordics. Now when you put actors from two cultures together you have to find the right way.”

Liisa Penttilä-Asikainen, executive producer at Kaiho Republic, adds: “Creating a series with such a global cast, and production teams from countries as different as Finland and Chile of course had its challenges. But the amazing story that we are telling brought everyone together and the input of such a culturally diverse creative group really aided us in bringing this extraordinary series of events back to life.”

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The Saga continues: DQ talks to Sagafilm Nordic CEO Kjartan Thor Thordarson

Kjartan Thor Thordarson, CEO of Sagafilm Nordic, tells Michael Pickard how the decision to expand Sagafilm’s business is helping Icelandic drama make its mark on the television industry.

In an increasingly competitive market where coproductions are no longer an exception to the rule, one production company is hoping to reap the rewards of its European expansion.

Kjartan Thor Thordarson: Appetite for Scandinavian drama 'still growing'
Kjartan Thor Thordarson: Appetite for Scandinavian drama ‘still growing’

Iceland’s Sagafilm made the decision in February this year to open a new office in Sweden, to capitalise on the close links between Scandinavian broadcasters and with ambitions to impose itself further in Europe and beyond.

Announcing the move, Sagafilm Nordic CEO Kjartan Thor Thordarson said the decision to establish a new base in the centre of Stockholm was, in part, due to Icelandic broadcasters’ inability to meet the rising costs for series: “Our focus remains TV drama, but chances to grow domestically have been hampered by the national stations’ ability to pay the full production cost for local series. At the same time, there is a huge appetite from foreign broadcasters for original scripted drama and remake opportunities.

“Our goal is to up the game by accessing different markets from Stockholm where we will develop more ambitious projects with international partners and handle our remakes around the world.”

Now, just a few months on, Thordarson says Sagafilm’s new international strategy is already beginning to pay off, with the company’s flagship new drama Case (main image) being prepared to hit screens later this year.

He tells DQ: “It has changed everything. I’m closer to the Scandinavian buyers, which is very important if we’re to expand. I have seen quite a difference – a lot of people come to visit Stockholm to meet producers and channels, which you don’t see in Iceland. All the US channels seem to be looking at Scandinavia in a big way, and I profit from that. It makes sense being close to the market. It has done dramatic things for us.

“We hit it at the right time. The appetite for Scandinavian content is not losing ground – it’s still growing. What we’re seeing this year is there are so many more channels interested in buying this type of content and also getting in earlier, which is great for producers.”

Thordarson identifies a trend of European broadcasters moving away from the US content that has readily filled primetime slots in recent years and towards dramas from other countries that are proving to be ratings hits among domestic viewers. And it’s a trend of which many European territories are taking advantage.

Upcoming drama Case, which Kjartan says will 'change everything' for Sagafilm
Upcoming drama Case, which Kjartan says will ‘change everything’ for Sagafilm

“The US content seems to be giving way in Europe, so more slots are opening up for other things,” explains Thordarson. “When that happens, people look towards the successful markets, so both UK and Scandinavian content is benefiting, as are French shows. Italy has come in with Gomorrah and 1992. Germany is also getting more international recognition, so I think Europe is getting stronger.”

But it is in Scandinavia where Thordarson has seen first-hand the evolution of many networks’ attitudes towards homegrown drama, with an increasing number of nets throwing themselves into the arena.

“We have seen dramatic changes in Scandinavia,” he says. “All of a sudden in Sweden there are channels like Kanal 5, TV3 and HBO Nordic commissioning drama, which is new. Most of the people here in Sweden have previously said there were only two channels commissioning drama, and now there are five. The same thing is happening in other Scandinavian countries, including Iceland. We are seeing TV2 in Denmark adding more slots for local drama. The US content is giving way there, for example. I see this trend growing and the demand for unique content that’s not available everywhere is the reason for this. Channels are looking for more exclusive content.”

Sagafilm’s slate includes political drama The Minister for Iceland’s RUV, a fourth season of The Press (aka Pressa) for Channel 2 and an adaptation of a novel by author Stella Blómkvist.

But the series Thordarson says will be a game-changer for the firm is a new nine-part drama called Case, a thriller spin-off from its 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 – all seen through the eyes of the lawyers involved. It is due to premiere in mid-October on Iceland’s Channel 2.

“The themes in the series are very much to do with what’s going on with social media – the problems of young people being too open online and the fact young girls are being manipulated to do things they’re not supposed to do. We expose a lot of dirt and filth along the way, not necessarily all connected to the death of this girl.

“We believe this series will change everything for us. If you take the UK, we saw BBC Four starting to air content they believed was for niche audiences, like Wallander, The Killing and our series The Night Shift. But it turned out a lot of British people want to watch international series not spoken in English. We’re like that everywhere, we just want good content – it doesn’t matter what language is spoken – and that benefits smaller markets. This year and next year you will see Icelandic, Finnish and Eastern European series doing very well internationally.”

Case follows the aftermath of a ballerina's suicide
Case follows the aftermath of a ballerina’s suicide

A consequence of, or perhaps the motivation for, greater coproduction is the increasing budgets television dramas now demand, and Thordarson says Sagafilm is already adapting its own financing model.

“We used to look at Iceland as our primary market, but now we look at Europe as our primary market,” he says. “We’re financing our series completely differently now. In the past we financed 90% in Iceland and perhaps brought one Scandinavian channel on board. Now we’re looking at projects where we’re financing half out of Iceland and the rest internationally. It’s a completely different way of approaching things.

“The projects have changed as well; they’ve become more international. We look for stories we know will work in more than one country. We are even looking to commission things that are set in Iceland, but are not commissioned for Icelandic channels. Maybe we will sell it to an Icelandic channel. So we’re definitely doing things differently and looking for things that are global and fit into this coproduction model with characters from more than one country.”

Sagafilm’s expansion into Sweden, coupled with the growing appetite for Icelandic drama – BBC Four previously acquired Trapped – means it is now well placed to make its case for being a major player in the international market.

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