Never one to shy away from a challenge, Adam Price’s first major TV project brought the machinations of a coalition government to Danish screens with Borgen, which picked up an International Bafta during its three-season run.
Now he is taking on religion in Ride Upon the Storm, with two seasons of the show already commissioned by Denmark’s DR and Arte France.
Sitting alongside star Lars Mikkelsen, Price tells DQ how he hopes to address the big questions of life and religion in the show, which ostensibly focuses on the family of Mikkelsen’s priest Johannes, his wife and, in particular, their two sons, who each choose different religious paths.
Ride Upon the Storm is produced by SAM Productions and distributed by StudioCanal.
A family of priests are at the centre of Herrens Veje (Ride Upon the Storm), Danish writer Adam Price’s follow-up to political drama Borgen.
From a topic that may not immediately seem the most exciting – coalition politics in Denmark – Borgen creator Adam Price (pictured above) crafted a captivating drama that gripped audiences around the world. And now, turning his attention to religion in the forthcoming Herrens Veje (Ride Upon the Storm), the writer is hoping lightning will strike for a second time.
The series reunites Price with producer Camilla Hammerich and Danish broadcaster DR to tell the story of a family of Danish priests. While one son has followed his father into the priesthood, his brother has chosen another path.
The cast is headed by Lars Mikkelsen and Ann Eleonora Jørgensen as the parents, with Simon Sears and Morten Hee Andersen as their grown-up sons.
“I can think of no other broadcaster in Denmark that would be willing to tell a story that is as tricky, difficult, demanding and potentially provocative as this will be,” Price says. “My last show dealt with politics and I thought, ‘Where do I move from this?’ You can [take inspiration from] so many emotions as a writer – the emotion for this show is definitely curiosity.
“In the times we are living in now, it’s almost more political to write about religion than about politics – because when we’re talking about integration, immigration, social issues, geopolitics and terrorism, we are in fact dealing with religious issues. It is one of the great topics of our time.”
It’s the family at the centre of the story through which such issues are explored. “If you want a compelling story, you need to tell it from the point of view of the characters,” says Price. “It would be very difficult to talk about religion from too aloof a position, to talk about great ideas, religious history. It’s too big. You need to pull it down to a human level. The characters must always be at the heart of the story.”
DR is producing Ride Upon the Storm as a coproduction with French-German network Arte and SAM le Français, in association with distributor StudioCanal. The series, which is being filmed in Denmark and Spain, will debut this fall with 10 episodes, while DR has already ordered a second 10-episode season scheduled to air in autumn 2018.
Alongside Forbrydelsen (The Killing) and Broen/Bron (The Bridge), Borgen is regularly held up as one of the TV dramas that brought Danish – and Scandinavian – drama front and centre on the world stage.
“Nobody ever thought Borgen would travel or moderately interest an audience because, when you pitch the series, everybody should be running away screaming,” Price jokes of its niche political content. “Religion is definitely just as difficult a main topic as politics, but if you have captivating character stories then you can talk about all the difficult things on top of that. That was the way we told the stories of Borgen so I’m delving into the same bag of tricks. I hope it will still work.”
With the show in development for two-and-a-half years, Price spent six months working on Ride Upon the Storm by himself before setting up a small writers room, just as he did with Borgen, which was penned by just three writers for the first two seasons. Staff writers Karina Dam and Poul Berg joined Price in writing the first 14 episodes across Ride Upon the Storm’s two planned seasons, while Price and Dam are completing the final six episodes together.
The writers room, however, was more than just a collaborative effort. Price explains: “It was very important for me to have different attitudes of faith in the writers room – Karina is a Christian, Poul is probably an agnostic and I guess I am a non-believer myself, but a very curious one. It’s important in a show
like this that we take religion and faith extremely seriously.
“I’m not here to make people not believe, and the show is also not there to make people believe. What we really want with the show, apart from telling hopefully compelling, character-driven stories about faith and religion, is to make viewers wonder about
faith and religious issues and to make people discuss them.”
As the head writer, Price is typically hands-on across the entire project, overseeing up to six drafts of each script before they are approved for shooting. “I try to sketch out the full season because we need to know what we are moving towards so we don’t invent the world anew every time we storyline and pitch an episode,” he says. “It’s very important to know the end point on the map, so that while we can make many interesting and meaningful detours, there is a very clear course set for the whole story.
“The actors know the characters’ mid-points and end points in the season. We discuss that vividly with them every time we meet. If a character is to suffer a nervous breakdown in two or three episodes’ time, the actor has a right to know so they can build up to that moment and it won’t be a steep mountain to climb in the actual episode. It’s so important that we can see small traits of [such a plot point] in the way the character behaves a few episodes in advance.”
Research is another part of Price’s writing process, but he says it’s important not to become “lost” in details that can limit creativity in the writers room. A priest has also been on hand as a religious advisor, sitting in the room once a month to listen to pitches for the next block of episodes.
“With reference to Borgen, it’s one thing to step on a person’s political beliefs, but it’s another entirely to step on their religious faith,” Price explains. “We need to know when we’re stepping on any toes; we can’t step too wildly and in all directions without researching or planning quite thoroughly. This is definitely territory where people can be very upset. It can and will probably happen.”
After the success of Borgen, which ran on DR for three seasons and starred Sidse Babett Knudsen as the Danish prime minister, Price admits he tries not to concern himself with the expectations over his follow-up series, which is coproduced by the SAM label founded by Price, fellow writer Søren Sveistrup (The Killing) and producer Meta Louise Foldager Sørensen (A Royal Affair) in 2014.
Also on SAM’s slate is Gidseltagningen (Below the Surface), a hostage drama for Denmark’s Kanal 5, and Mercur (Something’s Rockin’), a radio station-focused show that launched in March on TV2 Charlie. The company also has projects in development in Denmark and the UK, as well as the US with HBO and AMC.
“The Danish industry has changed – it has become much more international,” Price says. “We should just be grateful that we’re able to finance these shows with big countries in Europe and across the world.
“Now they know our shows – and if we can do something as good as The Killing, they want to be a part of it. That’s a great privilege because it allows us to tell even more ambitious stories. We are standing on the shoulders of our own success, which is very demanding but also a great privilege.”
Andy Fry casts his eye over this year’s selection for the MipTV Drama Screenings and finds an eclectic mix vying for the awards on offer.
In 2016, MipTV organiser Reed Midem decided to celebrate the global boom in scripted TV by launching its own drama awards. Dubbed the MipDrama Screenings, the first year was such a hit with buyers that the event has been brought back for 2017.
Just like last year, 12 finalists have been pre-selected for the awards in Cannes by an advisory board made up of experienced buyers. These shows will now compete for three awards – one decided by a jury of producers, another by critics and a third by buyers, who get to vote for their favourite show after screenings.
There are a couple of points about the MipDrama Screenings that make them particularly interesting. The first is that they focus on non-US titles, meaning that producers from less high-profile markets get a better chance to stand out from the crowd.
This year’s 12 comprise dramas from the UK (three), Germany (two), Russia (two), Canada, France, Denmark, Norway and Brazil. This echoes the story last year when Public Enemy, a drama from Belgium, was selected as the event’s top drama.
The second is that they are all new titles, which means many of them haven’t had much market exposure until now. A couple, like Babylon Berlin and Ride Upon the Storm, have been flagged up for a while – but this is not an awards programme for endlessly returning series like Game of Thrones or American Horror Story. In fact, around half the series being showcased are still in the middle of production.
So what can we learn from the 12 finalists? Well, in terms of subject matter, several deal with themes that have been pretty prominent in film and TV drama recently. Federation Entertainment’s Bad Banks, for example, is a new look at the world of big finance, while Sky Vision’s Bad Blood is a gangster series based on a true story.
All Media Company’s Russian drama Better Than Us (pictured top) is an exploration of AI’s role in our lives, while TV Globo’s Jailers is a new take on prison drama – this time from the point of view of guards, rather than inmates.
There are also a couple of cop shows, though perhaps not the kind we’re used to. The Territory, for example, is an eight-part drama from Sreda Production in Russia. The story is set in a town where a series of ritualistic murders take place. As a result, a pugnacious detective is called in to deal with the situation.
There is also Germany’s Babylon Berlin, a high-end drama series based on the thrillers by Volker Kutscher. Set in 1920s Berlin with Tom Tykwer as showrunner, this could be one of the landmark series of the year if it lives up to the hype.
The rest of the finalists tackle an eclectic and unusual range of subjects. For example, Missions, distributed by AB International, is a futuristic thriller focused on a Mars mission that goes wrong. While we’ve seen Mars as the focus of films and documentary series, this is the first recent TV drama to come to market (though others are in the pipeline).
Ride Upon the Storm is another leftfield drama. From Borgen creator Adam Price and produced by DR Drama in coproduction with Arte France and SAM le Francais, this is a story about faith, both in the traditional religious sense and in the wider context of what it is that guides us through our existence. It centres on an alcoholic, abusive priest and his two sons.
Faith may seem like a tough subject for a TV drama, but after Borgen (politics) and Follow the Money (finance), DR Drama is as likely as any to pull it off. Speaking about the series, Price says: “Despite the fact the Danes might not see themselves as a religious nation, we are surrounded by faith in our daily life. Faith fills the public debate – when atheists encourage people to leave the church, when we discuss integration, the refugee crisis, terrorism or the US presidential election. But also when we nurture mindfulness, ‘hipster Buddhism’ or the familiar blend of superstition and spirituality.”
Interestingly, the other Scandi finalist goes to the other end of the moral spectrum. Produced by HandsUp Stockholm for Viaplay Nordic, Veni Vidi Vici tells the story of a failing movie director who attempts to revive his career by working in the adult entertainment industry. However, this suspect career move forces him into a double life that threatens his family.
The show is part of Viaplay’s push into original drama. Explaining why his company backed the show, Viaplay CEO Jonas Karlén says: “We are convinced combining acquired TV dramas such as Empire and Blacklist with original Nordic drama is our future. Viaplay will take the lead on original productions in the Nordics, with 50 projects in the pipeline until 2020 with great stories that also have the potential to travel.”
A strong UK pool consists of ITV’s Fearless, Channel 4’s Gap Year and the BBC’s Clique – projects that all benefit from having strong writers at the tiller. Fearless, for example, is from Patrick Harbinson (Homeland). Starring Helen McCrory (Peaky Blinders), it tells the story of a solicitor who gets caught up in a political mystery while investigating the killing of a schoolgirl.
“Fearless is a legal thriller, but one that’s written in the crash zone where law and politics collide,” says Harbinson. “The so-called War on Terror has put serious stress on the workings of the law. National security justifies all sorts of police and state over-reach, and the majority of us accept this. So I wanted to create a character who challenges these assumptions.”
The other two UK entries are novel attempts to appeal to a younger audience – something TV drama desperately needs to do. Gap Year, written by Tom Basden (Fresh Meat) and distributed by Entertainment One, tells the story of a group of young travellers heading off on a three-month trip around Asia.
All3Media International’s Clique, created by Jess Brittain (Skins), is about two best friends drawn into an elite circle of alpha girls led by lecturer Jude McDermid in their first few weeks at university in Edinburgh. “It is about the different ways ambition plays out in young women at university,” says Brittain. “It’s a heightened version of a certain type of uni experience, pulled from my time at uni, then ramped up a few notches into a psychological thriller.”
In terms of the mechanics of the above shows, a few have been set up as coproductions, but for the most part they are centred around a strong central vision that originates in one territory. The impression is that the advisory board favoured shows that seek to tell local stories with universal themes. It’s also noticeable that most of them have a limited series feel to them. While this doesn’t preclude them from returning, it confirms the impression that the scripted sector outside the US is most comfortable in the six-to-10-episode range, working with season-long narratives rather than story-of-the-week projects.
Some of the talent involved is well established: Tykwer, Harbinson, Basden and Price, for example. But the overall list looks like a serious attempt to give buyers some interesting new angles,rather than simply showcasing big MipTV clients.
Public Enemy’s victory last year proves it’s hard to predict which show will come out on top. But the three-pronged winner selection process means the shows will be scrutinised pretty rigorously. Expert judges include Filmlance International MD Lars Blomgren (The Bridge), showrunner Simon Mirren (Versailles), screenwriter Virginie Brac (Cannabis, Spiral), Mediapro head of international content development Ran Tellem (Prisoners of War) and Big Light Productions founder Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files). That’s an impressive line-up of global drama talent with a good eye for spotting winning projects.
Finally, of course, it’s worth asking: is entering worth the effort? Well, the experience of Public Enemy would suggest so. Barely known before MipTV last year, the show was later sold by Banijay Rights to a wide range of broadcasters including TF1 and Sky Atlantic. So the message seems to be that creative recognition at the awards can have a financial pay-off.