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.”
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.
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.
“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.”