Tag Archives: HBO Nordic

Out of time

DQ visits Oslo to find Vikings and people from the Stone Age and the 19th century wandering the streets of the Norwegian capital. It’s all part of the story of the first original drama from HBO Nordic, Beforeigners.

The Barcode area of Oslo takes its name from its row of flashy high-rise buildings, which appear as a series of vertical strips. Companies housed in the area, also known as the Opera Quarter, include multinationals PriceWaterhouseCoopers and Deloitte. It screams wealth and prosperity, and is certainly not used to mess tainting its near-sparkling streets.

For HBO Europe’s Norwegian drama Beforeigners, however, the upmarket location has been transformed into a jumble of hay, live fowl and other farmyard animals, with wooden pallets carelessly strewn all around.

Sandwiched between an edgily designed apartment block and a fitness centre, Vikings are rubbing shoulders with women in 1800s-style bonnets and crinoline skirts, who themselves are sidestepping unkempt cavemen and livestock.

Greenlit by HBO Nordic last year, Beforeigners is the premium cablenet’s first Norwegian commission. The premise is simple: around the world, powerful flashes of light have appeared in the ocean, with people from the past – the Stone Age, the Viking era and the late 19th century – emerging as a result. No one can explain the phenomenon, while the anachronistic individuals – dubbed ‘Beforeigners’ – have no idea what’s happened.

A few years later, burnt-out police officer Lars Haaland, played by Nicolai Cleve Broch, is paired up with Viking Beforeigner Alfhildr (Krista Kosonen) as part of a police integration programme. Investigating the murder of a woman with Stone Age tattoos, the fractious pair make unexpected discoveries.

The series is a melting pot of genres, throwing in sci-fi, dystopian near-future, detective and comedic elements. Slapstick and incongruity were precisely what husband-and-wife writers Eilif Skodvin and Anne Bjørnstad – the duo behind Netflix’s Nordic mob comedy original Lilyhammer – wanted from the show.

L-R: Beforeigners writers Anne Bjørnstad and Eilif Skodvin with director Jens Lien and stars Nicolai Cleve Broch and Krista Kosonen

“A simple theme is identity. We all look for a place to belong. What is your identity made up of? Is it your past or present? Is it the way you dress, the way you speak, your memories, your friends? This is a central theme, but it’s something that comes out of the stories. It’s not like we wanted to explore it [from the outset] – the theme is constantly evolving,” Bjørnstad explains.

“We’re not the type of writers who have an agenda,” says Skodvin. “For us, it’s just as important, or even more important, to have the idea of a sprawling universe. This is going to be a fun show; it’s a great sci-fi image of Stone Age, Medieval and 19th century people wandering the streets, and we have a little crime story within it. The fun and excitement of that idea can’t be separated from it, but you need to touch on some contemporary issues and have some meaning in it. If it doesn’t have substance, you run out of steam quite fast.”

The humour in Beforeigners is noticeable even before a camera has started rolling. A glance at the production notes for the day’s filming reveals one shot as “a blind Beforeigner sits eating a Popsicle and petting his dog,” a three-legged Pomeranian called Skrubb that belongs to producer Terje Strømstad. Next to the bedraggled Beforeigner, the tiny Skrubb looks particularly out of place.

Strømstad says this part of town has become “the ghetto of Oslo” in the drama, another irony, because it was originally meant to be the prestigious luxury accommodation spot before the electrical reaction to the Beforeigners’ arrival shorted the power in the district.

Director Jens Lien (The Bothersome Man) is having an impassioned discussion with his producers and director of photography Philip Øgaard about the specific height of some of the pallets the Beforeigners are sitting on. A lot of thought is being given to the extras before speaking cast members Cleve Broch and Ylva Bjørkås Thedin, who plays Lars’ daughter Ingrid, take their part in the scene.

Oslo’s Barcode district is transformed during filming

“We have to be very focused on shooting very specific things; it has to work. So the biggest challenge is, maybe a little bit boring, but just making it work. You’re working on new ground all the time. It’s a new genre. How do you work out what a Stone Age guy looks like?” Lien says. “The good thing with the Stone Age is nobody knows [what it was really like]. No one knows how they sounded. So we have a bit of free rein.”

Hanne Palmquist, executive producer on the series and commissioning editor and VP of original programming at HBO Nordic, says the fantastical universe that Beforeigners proposes lives up to the high-concept benchmark set by other HBO dramas. Like Bjørnstad and Skodvin, she cites previous US HBO series like The Leftovers and True Blood as having a similar feel.

“Authenticity is a key value for HBO. It looks like such a wild idea on paper, but Eilif and Anne came to my office and told me about this world and how it unfolded. A big and valid question was, ‘Will we ever believe in it?’” she says. “The reason you believe in it has a lot to do with Jens’ take on it. There’s humour and humanity but it’s a serious story.”

On the day DQ visits the set, it is mild and overcast with a hint of blue sky threatening to emerge as the crew set up – conditions Strømstad says are ideal for the autumnal period in which this scene takes place. Although Beforeigners is set and mostly shot in Norway, the cast and crew spent around four weeks filming internal shots in Lithuania for reasons relating to capacity. Many projects were shooting at the same time in Norway, resulting in a lack of qualified crew for the art department.

“The big problem is we have to create a universe. I would have liked it to have been this big,” Øgaard notes, stretching his arms wide, “but because of different things such as money, [it’s difficult]. But it’s my problem and my job [to find a solution]. You have to build up the contrast of the different eras as much as you can. We’ve done that in different places. We did a big scene in this cancer hospital, which is very modern, and you see these strange people in that environment. That contrast is fantastic.

The show picks up a few years after people from the past are inexplicably transported to the present

“We’ve done some beautiful shots with the main characters with costumes that looked like animals. When you see them from behind, it looks like a wolf walking around this modern setting. It’s very funny, and it was nice to play with that.”

CGI will be used to “manipulate” external scenes and make them “much more worn down,” he notes, with the aim being to achieve as much authenticity as possible. For costume designer Louize Nissen, the authenticity drive has caused a bit of a headache, with the constant mixing of costumes from different eras proving “difficult every day.”

“Do we use a red cape or a gold cape? How do we give them a costume that looks authentic but doesn’t look like we’re just giving them a funny hat and sticking them in front of a camera?” Nissen says as she tends to one of the 19th century characters.

The combination is striking. Among a group of Stone Age children, some are wearing pelts as ponchos, while others are decked out in the tracksuits the Beforeigners receive as part of a “starter pack.” A band of Vikings sporting thick beards and wearing capes are also walking through the shot, 21st century trainers poking out from underneath. Descriptions of other shots to be filmed on the day include “a man blowing into a Ram’s horn (from his window)” and “Stone Age kids learn to ride bikes,” with each given their own filming plan in the schedule.

“When we’re seeing the dailies, it’s like a firework every time,” says Palmquist. “One day you’re in Viking land and the next you’re having Bohemian conversations with well-educated Victorian people – that crazy mix. It is the world as we know it but a special and unique world. It’s more colourful than I would ever have thought.”

The series is the first original drama from HBO Nordic

The meticulousness mirrors the protracted writing process Bjørnstad and Skodvin went through to create Beforeigners. Though they had both known for a while that they wanted to do a premium sci-fi show, piecing together something meaningful and visually engaging was not an easy task, even with their experience.

“For shows that don’t work, it’s very often because the idea’s not there. It’s so difficult to come up with good ideas,” Skodvin says. “We always talk about ideas ourselves and sometimes [with] other writers, and we’ve talked about many bad ideas. We probably have about 100 horrible science-fiction shows we could tell you about because [it’s such a broad genre] – how about aliens here, or robots there?

“What you’re looking for in a genre show is a different world and something beautiful, but often it becomes silly and you haven’t got any connection with the real world. In the type of sci-fi show we’re doing here, a near-future show, it has to resonate. You’re waiting for that moment when you think, ‘This can connect to real experiences.’”

After careful planning, it was Skodvin who eventually put the words on paper. Outlining the duo’s writing process, he jokes: “Anne slaughters it, then I cry, then she comforts me.”

The intention was for the drama to explore the effects a surge of time-travelling refugees from the past has on society, with an eye on offering a critique of European countries’ varying responses to the influx of refugees over the past few years by offering a positive view of cultural integration.

In the show, Cleve Broch’s police officer Lars is partnered with Viking Beforeigner Alfhildr (Kosonen)

“It’s that picture of society; of the excitement of the different individuals who have arrived with totally different backgrounds and are co-existing with us; of the different problems and qualities they bring to our time. It’s an exciting image,” says Skodvin.

Buddy-cop drama convention dictates that no seasoned officer can ever like their new partner immediately. Combine this with a wariness of the Beforeigners and it seems fair to assume “burnt out” Lars would be unfriendly and impatient with Alfhildr and her fellow time travellers – but Cleve Broch says this isn’t quite the case with his character.

“He’s a good guy in that way, he’s just exhausted because he’s been overloaded with work for so many years and in his department they don’t have any time or money,” the actor tells DQ. “He’s insecure. He doesn’t really know what to say. His back aches and everything hurts a little bit, everything’s a bit difficult. He’s got too many feelings, he’s too sensitive.”

Kosonen says the duo bounce off each other well, in keeping with the show’s “satirical, political and funny” tenor.

“I did tell Nicolai when we were in the car that Vikings only bathe once a week so you can feel my presence!” she jokes. “Alfhildr has no subtext. I think of her as a very straightforward person. Before I talked to Viking experts, I thought Vikings were roaring people, having sex and fighting all the time, but actually they were very organised. They had a strong hierarchy and were very honest, and I try to think about that with my character. She’s very sincere and honest, whereas Nicolai’s very gloomy.”

Outside of Cleve Broch and Kosonen, the cast is mainly made up of a combination of unheralded actors from Finland, Iceland and Norway, with a total of 120 characters in the production.

“Complexity in the story is also kind of reflected in the cast,” Palmquist says. “We had the opportunity to look for faces that were partly known to a Norwegian audience but also some that weren’t. The fact that two quite big roles are female Vikings, maybe it would be harder to buy if they were well-known Norwegian actresses. The show gave us the opportunity to go out and search for talented actors.”

Beforeigners is clearly a work of contrasts and tangents, a patchwork drama that will defy being pigeon-holed as any single genre. And while broad themes are recognisable, Bjørnstad and Skodvin want to upend tradition.

“How do other writers write the same stories again and again?” Skodvin wonders. “You need that attraction of an exciting new universe.”

In an era of infinite but often unoriginal dramas, it’s a good place to start.

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On the right track

As the battle for the best projects becomes ever more fierce, leading drama commissioners and producers open up about their own development processes and reveal how they work to bring new series to air. 

For television drama commissioners, the development process must feel a lot like spending their working hours at the races, looking for the right horse on which to bet and willing it to cross the line in first place.

The financial power of SVoD platforms has changed the game for those picking up series for their networks, with the battle for projects now increasingly fierce as partners come together earlier in the process than ever.

Meanwhile, producers are reaping the benefits of an increasing number of buyers looking for original, brand-defining shows. But how is the development process changing at both broadcaster and producer level, and what challenges do they face in the new television landscape?

Sky Atlantic’s epic Roman drama Britannia

Anna Croneman, SVT’s newly installed head of drama, admits very few of the Swedish broadcaster’s scripted series are developed in-house. Instead, writers or writer-producer teams will pitch her ideas and SVT will then board a project from the start. But Croneman says her development slate has been slimmed down to ensure viable projects are singled out early on.

“Last year we cut the development slate significantly, which means we can spend more time on things we really believe are right for us,” she explains. “We lose some projects to the international players, but there is really no other broadcaster doing what we do in Sweden, in the Swedish language. But once again, getting the right talent is an even greater challenge now.”

That challenge is amplified by the competition from Netflix and HBO Nordic, which is starting to commission local original series. “I see companies trying to tie down writers by employing them, or doing first-look deals on ideas,” Croneman adds.

HBO Europe pursues projects from both single authors (such as Štěpán Hulík’s Pustina) and those that use writers rooms (Aranyelet). “In some cases we go through quite a lot of storylining processes; other developments go to first script very quickly,” explains Steve Matthews, VP and executive producer of drama development at the firm. “Sometimes we will polish a pilot through a number of drafts, sometimes we will commission a number of first drafts. It all depends. There is no set system; every project grows organically – we are proudly writer-led in our developments and do our best in each case to find the best support we can bring to the process.”

The company seeks to join projects as soon as possible, and Matthews says there are no rules about what materials it needs to consider a pitch. “We like to be involved early so that we can offer support in that crucial inception,” he says. “That’s when we can help the team understand our needs as a broadcaster and, crucially, for us to understand what the writer is trying to do or say and so support them in that process. A shared vision early in the development fosters a sense of joint ownership and collective focus on the core idea.”

HBO Europe’s Aranyelet is adapted from Finland’s Helppo Elämä

When its original-programming operation was in its infancy, HBO Europe’s attention centred on adaptable formats. But Matthews says the network group wanted the same thing then as it does now – shows that feel fresh and relevant in the territories for which they are made, whatever their origins.

“The results include shows that are based on formats, like Aranyelet [Finland’s Helppo Elämä] and Umbre [Australia’s Small Time Gangster], but that push ahead into new stories that are entirely authored by our local teams,” he explains. “Furthermore, adapting formats has proven an excellent training ground. Our brilliant teams in the territories have nurtured stables of writers who have learned their craft on series like our various versions of In Treatment and are now showrunners passing on their knowledge to the next groups of talent we bring in. So we feel we have the experience and confidence to no longer rely on formats. For our new slate in Adria, for instance, we decided at the start we would only develop original ideas from local talent.”

UK broadcaster Channel 4 is known for its eclectic drama output, from topical miniseries The State and National Treasure to shows that take an alternative approach to familiar genres, like Humans (sci-fi) and No Offence (crime).

“We have regular conversations with producers and writers and have a realistic development slate,” explains head of drama Beth Willis. “We don’t want to flirt unnecessarily with projects we don’t love – it’s a waste of time for the producer and the writer. So we will be clear from the off about whether we think it’s for us. And if we do say we think it’s for us, we really mean it.”

As a commissioner, Willis says she will offer her thoughts on early drafts and throughout production, and that the increased competition for scripted projects means her team is now more conscious of the defining characteristics of a C4 drama. However, like Croneman, she notes that “the biggest competition is in securing talent for projects rather than specific projects themselves.”

Producer Playground Entertainment adapted Little Women

“We receive hundreds of pitches a year from independent production companies,” says Rachel Nelson, director of original content at Canada’s Corus Entertainment. Her team read and review each piece and have bi-weekly meetings where they determine what might be suitable for Corus’s suite of networks, which includes Global and Showcase.

“We work mostly with producers, rather than with a writer only. We are open to ideas and will accept any creative, from scratches on a napkin to full scripts,” she says, adding that Corus’s focus now falls on projects within targeted genres. “We’ve also learned how important it can be to take risks and not be afraid of doing that when we feel strongly about specific projects. We experienced this first-hand with Mary Kills People. We received the script, read it right away and were so impressed that we moved to an immediate greenlight on this show by an unknown writer, pairing her with an extremely experienced team.”

Fellow Canadian broadcaster Bell Media – home of CTV and Space – is also open to developing projects that arrive in any form, though a producer should be attached fairly early in the process, says director of drama Tom Hastings. That said, its development process hasn’t radically changed in recent years, even as the company moves with programming shifts such as the trend for shorter serialised dramas.

“We take a ‘steady ship during stormy weather’ approach,” Hastings says. “As our channels have strong brands and identifiable audiences, we remain committed to developing drama programmes that best fit those brands and work for those specific viewers.  We remain very selective about what we develop and we take our time, demanding the best of everyone, including, most especially, ourselves.”

Arguably the biggest battleground in the world of development is the race to secure IP, with producers scrambling to pick up rights to films, stage shows and, in particular, books – often before they have even been published.

James Richardson

Transatlantic producer Playground Entertainment is behind new adaptations of Howards End and Little Women, and has previously brought Wolf Hall, The White Queen and The White Princess to the small screen. But adaptations, like every development project, are not a “one-size-fits-all process,” says Playground UK creative director Sophie Gardiner. “Sometimes we will commission a script before going to a broadcaster – maybe because nailing the tone is crucial to the pitch and you can’t do that in a treatment – but more often we prefer to work with a partner in the initial development.

“Not only does this mean you are on their radar and they are invested in it from the get-go, but they can often be genuinely helpful. However, there’s no doubt the SVoD firms are looking for material to be pretty well developed, and more packaged [compared with what traditional broadcasters want].”

The Ink Factory burst onto the television scene with award-winning John Le Carré adaptation The Night Manager in 2016 and is following up that miniseries by adapting two more Le Carré novels – The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and The Little Drummer Girl. Both are  again with Night Manager partners AMC and the BBC.

“Relationships with broadcasters are vital, and it is via those connections that we get to know each other and forge a sense of where our taste synthesises – and, from there, opportunities evolve,” explains Ink Factory head of development Emma Broughton. “Sometimes we will work on the seed of an idea and build it ground-up with a broadcaster. Some of our projects have broadcaster attachments before they have a writer or director. On other occasions, we will develop an idea ourselves to one or two shaped scripts and take those – with a series bible and, potentially, a director and cast attachments – to a broadcaster.”

Broughton says the development process has become “more innovative and collaborative,” thanks to opportunities to build stories not confined to the UK. But increasing competition means The Ink Factory must be more distinctive, original and bold in its ambitions, she adds.

Author Štěpán Hulík’s Pustina for HBO Europe

“It’s a terrific challenge,” the exec continues, “from bringing passion and vision when pitching in a highly competitive situation to secure a book, or developing projects that attract the most exciting and creative on- and off-screen talent. It’s all about the excellence of the work, being collaborative and honouring authorship.”

A “fairly traditional” approach to development is employed at Komixx Entertainment, which follows the tried-and-tested method of sourcing existing IP with a built-in audience and using recognised writers and producers. Keeping the original author of the IP closely involved is also seen as an important step to stay true to the material, in an effort to remove as much risk to broadcasters as possible.

What is different about Komixx, says Andrew Cole-Bulgin, group creative officer and head of film and TV, is where the company sources its IP, using both recognised authors such as Robert Muchamore (the Cherub series of novels) and new content from non-traditional publishers, such as self-publishing community Wattpad.

“As a young-adult producer, it’s crucial to consider that Generation Z is an audience made up of digital natives, so the best content comes from within their digital roots,” Cole-Bulgin argues. “Transitioning and retaining this audience from one digital platform, like Wattpad, to another, such as Netflix, is easier and more successful than pursuing a linear broadcasting approach.”

Komixx now has a raft of projects in development simultaneously, instead of focusing on a select few. Cole-Bulgin also believes the increasing power of SVoD platforms has transformed the production landscape, providing huge opportunities for producers. “As they look to quickly expand their libraries of content, we have to adapt our development method to fit their needs,” he notes.

Feature producer Vertigo Films has built its reputation on the back of Football Factory, Monsters and Bronson but is now breaking into TV with Sky Atlantic series Britannia. The epic Roman-era drama is set to debut in the UK early in 2018. Co-founder James Richardson says the firm is regularly “idea led,” often by the talent involved. “But every show needs to be somehow off-kilter – commercial but never straight,” he adds. “And we like projects that we feel we haven’t seen before, or that are tackling a subject we have seen before in a completely different way. Britannia, for example, subverts the historical genre.”

Vertigo has also had Sky pick up Bulletproof, a crime drama starring Ashley Walters and Noel Clarke and showrun by Nick Love. “Going from film to TV has been such an exciting transition creatively and I am in awe of execs in the TV world for creating shows over such a long space of time, since we have just had to make 90-minute films for most of Vertigo’s lifetime,” Richardson adds. “The process – and why we want to make a project – is the same, but there’s just more story, much more story.”

Looking forward, Richardson believes the development process for television drama, which can already take several years, will take even longer. “Getting projects to a place where they are ready before shooting – the film model – will become the norm for many shows. It makes a big, big difference.”

Komixx’s Cole-Bulgin concludes: “With companies like Facebook launching into the broadcast market, it will be fascinating to see how producers deal with the increasing demand for shortform scripted content for the audiences who are consuming their content via mobile platforms.”

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