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Political ambitions

In Icelandic drama The Minister, an unconventional politician with a hidden health condition rises to become prime minister. Star Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, writer Jónas Margeir Ingólfsson and director Nanna Kristin Magnúsdóttir tell DQ about making the series.

If viewers were delighted by the surprise announcement of a fourth season of Bafta-winning Danish political drama Borgen, their joy was tempered by the fact it isn’t due to be delivered until 2022. Before then, however, another drama is set to throw audiences into the midst of Scandinavian politics, charting one man’s unlikely rise to the role of prime minister.

That journey may be where Icelandic eight-parter The Minister veers away from Borgen, in which Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen) must juggle her personal and family life with as much delicacy as coalition politics.

In The Minister, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (Trapped) plays Benedikt Ríkhardsson, a maverick and an idealist with a unique take on politics who surfs a wave of popular discontent to become chairman of the Independence Party and Iceland’s prime minister.

However, Benedikt has bipolar disorder, a condition that triggers extreme mood swings from depression to mania. As his mental health progressively worsens, his team and their allies are forced to endanger both the stability of the government and their private lives as some choose to hide the illness and others abuse it.

“It’s a great role,” Ólafsson tells DQ. “First of all, there’s the aspect of Benedikt starting his political career. He hasn’t been a part of politics, even though he’s very knowledgable about it. He’s never actually been part of that machine. Another aspect is he’s a man who goes through a manic episode while in a quite powerful position in society, and we see the effects of that both on society as a whole but also his policies and the policies of his party.

“Then there’s the effect it has on his relationship with his wife, and the fact they are going to have their first child. They’ve been trying to have a baby for some time and they haven’t been able to. Those three things combined make it a very interesting role and something I really want to be a part of. Plus it’s well written, I loved the directors and everything was right.”

Jónas Margeir

The Minister, which will debut on Iceland’s RUV in September, has been seven years in the making for writers Birkir Blær Ingólfsson, Björg Magnúsdóttir and Jónas Margeir Ingólfsson, who presented the show at France’s Série Series festival in 2018.

Ingólfsson says the initial idea was to create a political drama about a man suffering from bipolar disorder. “In itself, it is an absolutely horrific condition and something to be taken quite seriously, but we thought it was also such a great embodiment of the Icelandic nation and the national soul, because we keep going up into a manic episode and down into a depression and back up again,” he explains.

“We thought this was something that was really fun to play around with while writing the show, and all these great ideas kept coming to us while we figured it out. Then we felt it was a universal theme as well and it was a good story with a brilliant character that Darri portrays wonderfully.

“We started writing this in 2013, so we’ve put a lot of work into it. What we were dealing with initially in the writers room was this character; this humble, sincere, serene man going into a manic episode while trying to face all of these really fundamental issues in politics, both domestically and internationally.

“While he’s trying to think outside the box, the legal and political system is constantly trying to put constraints on him. That was a great conflict to work with and to have as the main thread throughout the series. It was seven years of that. It was a lot of fun, and now we’re very happy it’s been brought to the screen.”

Produced by Sagafilm (Stella Blomkvist) and distributed by Cineflix Rights, The Minister’s cast also includes Aníta Briem as Benedikt’s wife and TV news station chief Steinunn Þorgeirsdóttir; Þuríður Blær Jóhannsdóttir as Hrefna Hallgrímsdóttir, political advisor to the PM; Thor Kristjánsson as Benedikt’s party ally Hallgrímur Tómasson (Grímur); Elva Ósk Ólafsdóttir as Valgerður Oddsdóttir (Vala), chair of the PM’s coalition party; and Oddur Júlíusson as TV news reporter Óttar Blöndal. Behind the camera are directors Nanna Kristin Magnúsdóttir (Happily Never After) and Arnór Pálmi Arnarson (Ligeglad).

Magnúsdóttir says she was intrigued by the challenge of brining Benedikt to the screen, as well as seeing the political landscape in Iceland from his unique perspective.

“I had known of the script for a long time so I was very honoured when I was asked to be one of the directors,” she says. “It’s a huge production for Iceland, so that was also exciting and challenging. I thought I would have something to say in this team and it worked out well, both with the actors and the scriptwriters.”

Magnúsdóttir’s preparation involved lots of discussions with the writers and Ólafsson about how they might present Benedikt on camera, with an ambition to externalise what is going on in his mind. “How do you show a bipolar man? You can show it by acting, but you cannot just show it by acting. It’s visual also, so we did everything to help him [on set] and in the editing room with the music composer in post-production,” she says.

Ólafur Darri Ólafsson portrays the prime minister of Iceland in The Minister

At the beginning, it’s not clear Benedikt is suffering from any health problems, coming across as an idealistic outsider who threatens to shake up the political establishment. His promises lead to an improbable election win that installs him as Iceland’s prime minister. But once he is in office, the series charts the gradual escalation of a manic episode.

“We see it though his ideas, which become more irresponsible. His decisions are more rash and taken on a whim as the series progresses, so we use that as a tool to see how his mania is escalating,” Ingólfsson says. “There are also beautiful tricks done by the directors and the actors to portray that beautifully.”

Ólafsson notes of his character: “He is different and unconventional. No one close to him really knows he has the potential to become so sick, so it’s a huge surprise to everyone around him, including himself in some ways. He is hard to figure out in the beginning and, with his mania, he becomes paranoid, feels he is better than others and more daring than others and that people are holding him back.

“There are political leaders working today I am not convinced are fully sane but they have a lot of power. I can imagine being part of the establishment and having to work with someone who does not respect the rules or is a loose cannon. It could be very difficult but also very dangerous. In many ways, we explore that in the show.”

Playing a charismatic politician who walks the fine line between madness and brilliance was made doubly challenging for the actor by the fact that the eight episodes were not filmed linearly, meaning he had to bounce back and forth between Benedikt’s various states of mind.

“Usually in Iceland, and on this project, we don’t have the luxury of shooting in blocks as you would if you were shooting in the US or the UK, where you would shoot the first two episodes and the next two and the next two,” Ólafsson explains.

Nanna Kristin Magnúsdóttir

“We had to shoot all eight in sync, at the same time. We tried to push as much as we could from the second half [of the season] later in the schedule, but that wasn’t always possible. You have to work really closely with your directors and your script supervisor. It was really challenging, but it was a lot of fun. Good work has to challenge you, but there also has to be enjoyment. I loved it. I hope I do it justice.”

The actor was particularly mindful of avoiding stereotypes of mental illness, and bipolar disorder in particular. “It’s such an easy thing to do badly,” he says. “We really wanted to be respectful and not act according to stigmas or prejudices but, at the same time, we wanted to explore what happens when people start getting ill with it. I also love the love story between him and his wife and their family life, which is beautiful.”

The Minister marks the first project for the trio of writers, who have spent years plotting and crafting the story. “Benedikt as a character is very idealistic and he is trying to save politics from itself. But the underlying conflict in the story is that politicians don’t want to be saved by an idealist,” says Ingólfsson.

“It was a question of how you portray that through someone who is gradually escalating into mania. You have to show that with respect because it is a life-threatening illness people all over the world suffer from, but you still have to make it entertaining in the incredibly harsh setting of politics. That was the challenging part of writing the script.”

Meanwhile, the directors were tasked with ensuring Benedikt was portrayed with an even hand, showing the good and bad sides of the newly installed political leader to ensure he is not too “holy.”

“We can’t just tell a story of this illness and how this man is victimised by it,” Magnúsdóttir says. “We have to be truthful to it – it affects many people around him because he acts like a healthy person wouldn’t do.”

Magnúsdóttir’s previous project saw her write, star in, produce and direct Pabbahelgar (Happily Never After), in which she plays a marriage counsellor whose life is turned upside down when she discovers her husband’s affair. This show, coupled with The Minister, gives Ólafsson the view that Icelandic drama is now branching out from crime dramas such as Trapped, The Valhalla Murders and Case, much in the way its Scandi neighbours have steered away from Nordic noir in recent years.

The team behind the show have strived to create an accurate depiction of bipolar disorder

“We’re seeing all kinds of different material we haven’t usually seen coming from Iceland, and that makes me happy,” Ólafsson admits. “It’s great we have our crime series. Trapped is something I’m really proud of but it’s also a lot of fun doing something like this, about a prime minister who has bipolar disorder and about women reevaluating their lives when they are halfway through [in Happily Never After], and so on. There are a lot of series now in development in Iceland that are really interesting. We’re going to see a lot more diversity coming out of Iceland.

“I feel the world is opening up to different series. The world is opening up to women getting older and I love that we’re now seeing, even in Hollywood, actresses who are 50 and 60 getting great roles. We need to make more stories about disabled people and involve more disabled actors. It’s really important and the audience is definitely out there.”

And when viewers watch The Minister, how should they feel about Benedikt? Ólafsson wants people to be conflicted by the character and his actions, but also to come away with a greater understanding of bipolar disorder. “People will feel sympathy not only for him but also for the people around him. That’s what I would like people to take away from it,” he says.

Ingólfsson concludes: “In politics, we invest in people by voting for them. They become our leaders and our politicians, and very often they turn out to be something different from what we expected. I suppose the viewers will have the same experience with Benedikt. You are immensely invested in him, he’s almost holy at the beginning, but then he turns out to be something other than you expected. That’s the feeling I would like the audience to experience: ‘I can’t believe I supported this guy.’”

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Task master

For Icelandic drama Pabbahelgar (Happily Never After), Nanna Kristín Magnúsdóttir juggled writing, directing, producing and acting. She tells DQ how she did it.

In 2018, a short film from Iceland travelled around the world, playing to audiences in destinations including Lübeck, Helsinki, Berlin, Barcelona, Athens and at home in Reykjavik.

Pabbahelgar (Happily Never After) was a six-minute clip in which a woman’s attempt to give her husband a ‘personal’ birthday present becomes rather complicated. But the end credits didn’t mean the end of the story, as the film was always intended as a taster for a six-part drama of the same name created by writer, director, producer and star Nanna Kristín Magnúsdóttir.

“I had written all the scripts for the TV series but then I did the short film to show the Icelandic Film Centre and Icelandic broadcaster RUV, which are funding this,” Magnúsdóttir tells DQ after a screening of the show at French TV festival Série Series. “I did a short to show them that this is what I want to do – ‘this is the tone.’ Some people do trailers, but sometimes they are just like music videos.”

When interest in the film grew, Magnúsdóttir put it out on the festival circuit. The full series, produced by Zik Zak Productions and Cubs Productions, was subsequently picked up for international distribution by Denmark’s REinvent Studios.

“So it worked out great,” she says. “This is a dramedy with a very raw look at Icelandic reality, and I found out through the film that people were not ready for this much rawness. But that was good. I was like, ‘OK, I have to pull back a little in the series without losing what I want to say.’”

Nanna Kristín Magnúsdóttir took multi-tasking to the extreme with her series Happily Never After

That rawness comes from the subject at the heart of Happily Never After: divorce. Magnúsdóttir plays 38-year-old Karen, a marriage counsellor and mother-of-three whose life is turned upside down when she discovers her husband’s infidelity. Suddenly single, she must say goodbye to her dreams of perfect family life, while offering advice to her clients now seems absurd.

The idea for the series first came to Magnúsdóttir when several of her friends were going through divorces, many because of infidelity. “But it was not always the man [who had cheated on his partner], sometimes it was the woman and

they have kids and families and stuff like that,” she explains. “This is interesting because you get so egocentric; all your feelings come out and you sometimes hate the person you loved two months ago, and it’s very, very emotional. There’s a lot of drama.”

When Magnúsdóttir herself went through divorce, she paused her writing to ensure the series didn’t become too personal, noting: “This story is not about me.” When she picked up the project again, Magnúsdóttir decided to inject some more humour into the storyline. Divorce, she says, is a process that can bring out the worst in people, but there’s also humour to be found in the situation.

Those lighter moments are present in Happily Never After’s scripts and the actors’ performances, while the camera acts as a fly on the wall, capturing every aspect of Karen’s emotional turmoil as if it were another person in the room. For much of the first episode, she is forced to put off confronting her husband about his affair by a series of family events that only serve to build the tension within both Karen and the audience waiting for the inevitable clash.

After graduating as an actor, Magnúsdóttir worked for several years in theatre, alongside taking TV and film roles in Iceland. “In Iceland, when you’re an actor, you’re not just a film actor – you do everything,” she says.

The show focuses on a woman whose life is turned upside down when she discovers her husband’s infidelity and they file for divorce

With ambitions to direct, she learned that many directors in Iceland write their own scripts, so she enrolled at Vancouver Film School to study screenwriting. Upon returning to her homeland, she immediately made a short, “non-budget” film, Playing With Balls, about a group of older lesbians who become intrigued by a young couple and one woman who decides to act on her desires. “I owe a lot of favours for this short film,” she says. “I didn’t want to get funding because I wanted to know if I could do it, and if I failed nobody would know.”

But the film proved so successful that it was screened at festivals in Toronto and Reykjavik. Another short film, Cubs, followed and again travelled beyond Iceland.

“So then I knew I had a voice, I had something,” she says. “I knew people wanted to watch what I want to show. When I started writing Happily Never After, it was my first time writing in a certain genre for a certain demographic. But because I was trying to write for someone else, it wasn’t that good. I just threw it away. Then I decided I was only going to write what I wanted to write. If nobody likes it, that’s that.”

But until the short film version of Happily Never After, essentially the first scene of episode one, proved to be incredibly popular, there weren’t many people interested in producing the series, “so I had to produce it myself because, at the time, Scandinavian noir was very popular – and nobody dies in my series,” Magnúsdóttir says of adding producer to a list of responsibilities that also included star, writer and director. “People were like, ‘This is not really what people want.’ That’s why I did the short to show what I wanted to do. It was not a burden to be in all these roles – I like to produce and write.

“This is my baby. I’m going to do two more seasons, and we’re starting to develop the next one. But this is not how I want to work [forever]. I want to be more focused on one [job] but this one is special and I had to do it, otherwise it wouldn’t have been made.”

Karen arrives on screens at a time when there are many great female characters populating dramas from around the world. But Magnúsdóttir believes this one is different. “For me as a woman and an actress, I find too often these characters are ‘strong females.’ That’s good, but sometimes they have very manly characteristics and lack what a woman has,” she says. “You can be a strong woman but you don’t have to behave like a man. There needs to be more variety in how you show women on TV. Karen is a mother and a couples counsellor, a friend and a wife – what we all are. We’re good at some things, not so good at other things.

Magnúsdóttir has plans for two further seasons of the drama

“I wanted to create a female character that is strong but with all the complexity women have, just like men. Men are not flawless; I like flaws. They’re what make people interesting, not just on TV but in daily life too. If you meet a ‘perfect’ person, they are most definitely not perfect. They will have a skeleton in their closet. Perfect is boring.”

It’s in her characters’ flaws, as well as the subject matter, that Magnúsdóttir finds the humour that is sprinkled through the series. And while she concedes the process of divorce is “very dramatic and traumatic,” she says stepping back from it reveals how “eccentric and strange” people can become.

“It’s not a comedy, it’s just a situation that can be fun,” she notes. “But as the season goes on, it becomes more dramatic because it’s also about loneliness. This woman has always done everything in her life with a partner, with her kid, but now every other weekend, the so-called ‘Daddy weekends,’ she has to be with herself all day long, and she hasn’t ever done that. It’s interesting because she’s really good at her job, but in her own life, she can’t really grasp the advice she gives everyone else.”

Once in production, Magnúsdóttir stuck to the script, which allowed her to focus on directing and acting. She also passed the producing baton to Birgitta Björnsdóttir. And despite having a hand in every part of the project, like all TV series, Happily Never After was also a extremely collaborative affair. “This project is so much more than just me. It’s a TV series. If it was all about me, I could just film myself on Facebook,” she says.

Magnúsdóttir’s other credits include writing on Icelandic neo-noir thriller Stella Blomkvist and directing episodes of The Minister, an eight-part series about an unorthodox politician’s rise to power, starring Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (Trapped).

Though taking on four different roles in Happily Never After might be an extreme way to showcase her talents, Magnúsdóttir is clear she won’t stop moving between different roles on future productions.

“In the end, I really love working with people,” she concludes. “It’s different if you’re a director, producer or actor, and it’s nice also for me as a filmmaker to see the process from different points of view.

“When you’re an actor, you don’t really know what’s going on. But as a producer, you get all the complaints. And as a director, you have to answer all kinds of questions, and I like that. I like all these kinds of roles.”

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Enigmatic TV

Based on the book of the same name, The Flatey Enigma is an Icelandic mystery drama about Johanna (Lara Johanna Jonsdottir, Sense8), a mother who returns to home to bury her father.

After the funeral, she picks up his research into an ancient manuscript that posits a riddle pointing to the resting place of a Viking lord. She then continues his work to solve the puzzle, as police arrive on the island following the murder of someone else who was interested in the riddle.

In this DQTV interview, executive producer Kjartan Thor Thordarson introduces the series and talks about how it offers a viewers a slower pace and alternative visual style to other Scandinavian noir series.

The Flatey Enigma is produced by Sagafilm and Reykjavik Films for Icelandic public broadcaster RUV. Sky Vision is the distributor.

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Rewriting history

James Bond screenwriters Robert Wade and Neal Purvis imagine a world in which the Nazis occupy Britain in the BBC’s adaptation of Len Deighton’s alternative-history novel SS-GB. DQ visits the set.

At first glance, the set of the 1940s-era London police station looks unassuming and inconspicuous. A map of the River Thames hangs on one wall, beside a board displaying the details of ongoing murder investigations. A telephone switchboard stands in another part of the office, while adjacent tables are laden with an assortment of maps, newspaper cuttings, mugshots and used ashtrays.

Neal Purvis and Robert Wade

‘Wanted’ posters show the faces and details of eight people sought for a train robbery, while a steam train calendar displays the dates of November 1941.

Yet look a little closer and unusual details start to emerge – notepaper headed with the word ‘Metropolitanpolizei’ sticks out from the top of a typewriter sitting on one desk, next to notebooks embossed with Nazi insignia.

Stepping outside the office belonging to Detective Superintendent Douglas Archer, ‘Metropolitanpolizei’ appears again, this time on a sign hanging over the doorway, while Nazi banners hang in the stairwell of a nearby spiral staircase. The scene is jarred further by the sight of soldiers standing in khaki SS uniforms.

This is the setting for SS-GB, the forthcoming BBC1 drama based on Len Deighton’s 1976 alternative-history novel that imagines the Nazis won the Battle of Britain in 1940.

Set in Nazi-occupied London, the story follows DS Archer (Sam Riley) who is working under the brutal SS regime. But while investigating what appears to be a simple black market murder, he is dragged into a much darker and treacherous world where the stakes are as high as they were during the war.

US actress Kate Bosworth stars alongside Riley as American journalist Barbara Barga, who becomes inextricably linked with the murder case Archer is investigating. The cast also includes Jason Flemyng, James Cosmo, Aneurin Barnard, Maeve Dermody and Rainer Bock.

The five-part series, produced by Sid Gentle Films, has been adapted from Deighton’s novel by Bafta-winning writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade – most famous for writing five James Bond features, including Spectre, Skyfall and Casino Royale.

The drama received its world premiere this week at the Berlin Film Festival, ahead of its UK debut on Sunday February 19. Distributor BBC Worldwide has also sold the series to broadcasters in Germany (RTL), Croatia (Pickbox), Sweden (SVT), Greece (Cosmote), Israel (HOT/Cellcom), Iceland (RUV) and Poland (Showmax), while it will also air on BBC First channels in Africa, Australia, Benelux and the Middle East, as well as UKTV in New Zealand.

It is directed by German director Philipp Kadelbach, whose credits include Naked Among Wolves and Generation War. Sally Woodward Gentle, Lee Morris, Purvis, Wade and Lucy Richer are executive producers. The series is produced by Patrick Schweitzer.

As fans of Deighton, Purvis and Wade were instantly drawn to the series, which marks their first move into television, when they were approached about the project by Woodward Gentle.

Maeve Dermody plays a girl caught up in the British Resistance

“It’s a pretty faithful adaptation,” says Purvis of the screen version. “The biggest challenge was [in the book] we were following Archer from his point of view. The fact he can’t trust people means it’s very difficult to talk to other people about what he’s thinking, so it was all about making it comprehensible because it’s quite a complex plot and nothing’s straightforward. The Resistance has got in-fighting and the German army and SS are opposed to each other, so it’s just finding a way to navigate through the story in an intriguing but understandable way.”

Wade picks up: “I think I understand it now – but we had to simplify it. Since Len wrote the book, there’s a bit more now known about what was going on in Britain to prepare for an invasion, so we were able to access those sources and that gave us background for the British Resistance and the real mechanisms that were set up in event of an invasion. But really our main job was to make the most of the drama within the story and, for that reason, we made a few changes that kept certain characters alive longer than they were in the book.”

Already an established genre in the world of fiction, alternative history is becoming a hot topic in television, with SS-GB following hot on the heels of Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, which plays out in a world where the Axis powers won the Second World War and America has been split between Japanese and Nazi rule, with a buffer zone separating the two.

SS-GB premiered this week at the Berlin Film Festival

Wade draws a distinction between the two series, in particular describing the Amazon drama as closer to science-fiction because the events it portrays weren’t ever close to happening. SS-GB, however, was within the realms of possibility.

“With The Man in the High Castle, which is set in 1962, you’re talking about the consequences [of the Second World War]. But in this you are actually living through the Occupation and the game isn’t necessarily over. It’s not a historical result, history is alive.”

Wade and Purvis co-wrote films Let Him Have It (1991) and Plunkett & Macleane (1999) before being asked to write Bond movies The World Is Not Enough, Die Another Day and the super-spy’s four most recent outings starring Daniel Craig. Other credits include 2003’s Johnny English, a spoof of the espionage genre starring Rowan Atkinson.

“We’ve written together for a very long time,” Purvis says. “We do that because we enjoy it. There’s more to it than just writing; you’ve got to go abroad and it can be quite pressured. So having two people has always been good because when things are going well, you can always go down the pub together – and when things are going badly, you can go down the pub together! It gets the job done well to be able to discuss things.”

With scripts approved by Deighton, the writers say they haven’t felt the need to be on set every day, but have kept in touch by watching the daily rushes. They were also consulted during casting and say they were very pleased by the decision to put Riley in the lead role. “We wanted someone who was a film actor – this is his first television job so it’s just that thing of trying to keep it like a big movie,” Purvis notes. “It gave it a bit more oomph to have someone like Sam.”

If Riley’s DS Archer is akin to Sam Spade, the protagonist of Dashiell Hammett’s noir thriller The Maltese Falcon, then US actress Kate Bosworth is firmly in the femme fatale role.

“She’s an American journalist who has just arrived on the inaugural New York-London Lufthansa flight, which is one of Len’s nice touches,” Wade offers. “She’s a femme fatale. She might be working for the Resistance, she might be a spy for the Germans, she might be an agent for the Americans – you don’t know. She’s someone who’s attractive to Archer and attracted by Archer. So it’s a dance. He’s trying to figure out whether she’s involved in this murder and she’s trying to figure out what she can get out of this guy.

“We balance her with Maeve Dermody, who plays a girl caught up in the Resistance and who is quite messed up. She’s an English girl and her parents were killed during the invasion. But she’s actually spying on Archer.”

But how did their experience on SS-GB compare to scripting a Bond movie? “It’s easier in the sense that there’s a book and you don’t have massive expectations,” Wade admits. “We’re very proud of this but we were able to write it in a free way. Hopefully there are some real surprises in this.

“With a Bond film, people are expecting certain things. The other aspect for us, as it’s our first TV series, was that having that large canvas to be able to tell a story with twists and turns over five hours is great fun, and you get the freedom you don’t have in an hour-and-a-half movie.”

Purvis adds: “We have been approached by TV a lot but we’ve always said no to everything. This was the first time we said yes. It’s a genre one can feel comfortable with. Len’s a great writer. It just seemed to be appealing and something we could do.”

For locations manager Antonia Grant, the toughest part of her job on SS-GB was finding appropriate exteriors around London for the show’s wartime setting. “It’s always a challenge for a locations department to remove the modern world,” she says. “We rely on the art department as well to help us so it’s very much a combined effort.

“There will be some things that are quite obvious [locations] as per the script that you have to go and look for. But then otherwise it’s coming up with different options to put to the director and designer and it’s a lot of driving around, photographing different places, chatting to people, persuading people to let us film.

“It’s always lovely looking for new locations but, on period dramas, there’s a limited amount because more things are changing and being modernised. I’ve shot on several new locations in this. Also, the nature of SS-GB, being alternative history, means you’re looking for quite different locations compared with those used for The Hour and certainly Call the Midwife [both also period dramas on which Grant has worked].”

After piecing together a 300-page script and bringing Deighton’s story to the screen, Wade and Purvis have one eye on their next big-screen feature – but tease that this might not be the end of the story for SS-GB.

“History is still in play, it’s not ended,” adds Wade. “Some characters have died, some have grown. I’m very pleased with the way it ends and there could be more.”

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European dramas get backing from buyers

Game of Thrones star Richard Madden in Medici: Masters of Florence
Game of Thrones star Richard Madden in Medici: Masters of Florence

Series like War And Peace, Borgia and Versailles have proved that there is a global market for lavish period dramas originated in Europe. And now Medici: Masters of Florence, featuring Dustin Hoffman, looks set to join this list of successful shows.

Produced by Lux Vide in collaboration with Big Light Productions and Wild Bunch, the show was commissioned by Rai in Italy and is distributed internationally by Wild Bunch TV (except in the US, where WME is handling sales).

This week, Wild Bunch announced a slew of Medici sales to SFR/Altice Group (France, French-speaking Belgium, Luxembourg), Sky (Germany), SBS (Australia), eOne (New Zealand), Sony Pictures Television (Latin America), DBS (Israel), VRT (Belgium), Canal+ (Poland), LRT (Lithuania), RTV (Slovenia), RTVS (Slovakia), Canal+ Overseas (French-speaking Africa), Hulu (Japan), Georgian Public 2 Broadcast and BTV (Bulgaria). This follows a previous sale by Lux Vide to Telefonica/Movistar+ (Spain) and news of a second series commission by Rai.

20 years ago, shows like these tended to end up ponderous and stilted, earning the ‘Europudding’ epithet. The main problem was that too many partners had a say in the creative direction and casting. These days, backers have learned to put greater faith in the hands of the storytellers – and have benefited as a result. In Medici’s case, the series is written by Frank Spotnitz, whose credits include series like The X-Files and The Man in the High Castle, and Nicholas Meyer (Houdini, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan).

Trapped will return for a second season

Medici is set in 15th-century Florence, the city that will host its world premiere on October 14. The eight-part show features Dustin Hoffman as Giovanni de’ Medici, the patriarch of the Medici family who is found dead in mysterious circumstances. His sons, Cosimo (Richard Madden) and Lorenzo (Stuart Martin), are forced to face a range of enemies plotting to oust the Medici from power. Shot entirely in Tuscany, the series depicts the foundations of one of the most profound financial, artistic and scientific awakenings the world has ever known: the Renaissance.

More good news for the European production business this week is the news that RVK Studios, Icelandic national broadcaster RUV and Dynamic Television have announced that Baltasar Kormákur’s Icelandic crime series Trapped has been renewed for a second season. Widely praised by critics, the series attracted a strong audience during its 10-episode run earlier this year. In the UK, the series premiere on BBC4 reached more than 1.2 million viewers. In France, episodes one and two attracted more than 5.7 million viewers on France 2. Audiences averaged more than 500,000 viewers for NRK Norway, while 86% of television-owning homes in Iceland tuned in. The show is also soon to air on ZDF in Germany.

Based on an original idea by Kormákur, Trapped tells the story of a troubled cop investigating a grisly murder when his small Icelandic town is hit by a powerful blizzard, trapping the villagers and most likely the killer in the town. Season two, slated to air in autumn 2018, will follow the same lead characters as they examine an even more complex and challenging murder case. “I am so excited to get to assemble this great group of talent again,” said Kormákur. “This story is far from over. There is a lot more to come, both story-wise and also concerning our lead characters. I guess we all want to get to know them a little bit better.”

Zero Days
Zero Days examines cyber warfare

Klaus Zimmermann, managing partner of Dynamic Television, which distributes the show, said: “Audiences overwhelmingly responded strongly to the thrilling drama and powerful characters and they will find the next season every bit as gripping.” Trapped stars Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, who has also appeared in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and True Detective. It is written by Sigurjón Kjartansson and Clive Bradley.

We’ve written a lot in the last year or two about talent being parachuted into TV drama from film, theatre and publishing. This week, we were reminded of another source of inspiration, following the news that Carnival Films is developing a drama based on Alex Gibney’s feature-length documentary Zero Days, which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February.

Written and directed by Gibney, Zero Days is a documentary thriller about warfare in an arena without rules – the world of cyber war. The film tells the story of Stuxnet, a self-replicating computer malware that the US and Israel unleashed to destroy a key part of an Iranian nuclear facility, and which ultimately spread beyond its intended target. It’s a comprehensive account of how a clandestine mission hatched by two allies with clashing agendas opened forever the Pandora’s Box of cyber warfare.

The drama (whose working title is Stuxnet) will be written by Stephen Schiff, who has been a writer/producer on FX’s acclaimed scripted series The Americans since the second season. Gibney directs and will also produce alongside Marc Shmuger. Nigel Marchant, David O’Donoghue and Gareth Neame are exec producing for Carnival. Participant Media will executive produce while NBC Universal International will distribute the series.

The original She's Gotta Have It
The original She’s Gotta Have It

Film buffs in the audience will note that all three of the above scripted series are directed by talent that is better known for feature-film work. In addition to Gibney and Kormákur, Medici is directed by Sergio Mimica-Gezzani – whose credits include Catch Me If You Can, Saving Private Ryan and Minority Report.

Continuing with this theme, SVoD platform Netflix is partnering with feted director Spike Lee on a drama based on his 1986 film She’s Gotta Have It. The show will follow a Brooklyn-based artist who juggles her time between her friends, job and three lovers. Lee will direct all 10 episodes of the show, which was initially in development with premium pay TV network Showtime.

Looking beyond the usual suspects in the TV drama business, Keshet International (KI) has picked up global distribution rights to Croatian crime drama The Paper and will be promoting it at the Mipcom market in Cannes next month. The 12×50′ show, produced by Croatia’s Drugi Plan, is set in the offices of a newspaper and explores political corruption, power struggles, crime and betrayal.

Roadies has been cancelled by Showtime
Roadies has been cancelled by Showtime

Commenting on the news, KI acquisitions chief Sebastian Burkhardt talked up the growing market for non-English-language drama: “With the current opportunities out there for non-English-speaking series, and our experience with them, we are confident that The Paper will find its audience outside of Croatia.”

Finally, another high-profile US series has bit the dust after just one season. Showtime has announced that Cameron Crowe’s Roadies will not return, following poor ratings (echoing the story with Vinyl at HBO). Crowe said: “Thanks to Showtime and [exec producer] JJ Abrams for the opportunity to make the one and only season of Roadies. My mind is still spinning from the giddy highs of working with this epic cast and crew. Though we could tell a thousand more stories, this run ends with a complete 10-hour tale of music and love. Like a song that slips under your skin, or a lyric that keeps speaking to you, we hope the spell of Roadies lingers. It was a life-changing experience for all of us.”

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Moving mountains to make authentic Icelandic thriller

Klaus Zimmermann and Clive Bradley reveal how they kept crime thriller Trapped grounded in its Icelandic setting while navigating the tricky waters around this intricate international coproduction.

While international coproductions perhaps no longer seem the terrifying prospect they once were, the story of how Trapped came to air may still send shivers down the spines of some television executives.

With nine different broadcast partners on board, making the series – created by renowned director Baltasar Kormákur (Everest) – looks a frightening task from the outside. But executive producer Klaus Zimmermann (Borgia) and writer Clive Bradley (The Killing Gene) say those fears are misplaced, as all partners worked together to create an authentic Icelandic drama that takes the popularity of Nordic Noir into new territory.

The 10-part series opens with snow falling as a ferry from Denmark pulls into a small Icelandic port. With 300 passengers stranded until the storm passes and with the main road into town impassable, a mutilated and dismembered body washes up on the shore – leaving a local police chief convinced a killer has arrived. As word of the death spreads, order descends into chaos as the ferry’s passengers and the town’s residents realise they are all possible suspects and that a killer is trapped among them.

Klaus Zimmermann
Klaus Zimmermann

Produced by RVK Studios and distributed by Dynamic Television, Trapped stars Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Bjarne Henriksen, Ingvar E Sigurðsson, Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir, Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir and Björn Hlynur Haraldsson.

Zimmermann joined the show in 2013 when Kormákur approached him with a project that he couldn’t get off the ground.

“I looked at the material he had worked on and the general idea was already there,” Zimmermann explains. “I took on the development and started to look for a team of writers who could make this more international without breaking the authentic charm of the show.

“Besides the original Icelandic writer, I identified Clive, with whom I’ve worked before. We went to Iceland and worked from scratch by imagining what a show needed to please an international audience. It took us a while to go back to the material, to develop the strong story arcs and strong characters, and after two months we had a new script.”

Several broadcasters had already turned down the project but, undeterred, Zimmermann went back to them with the new script. Germany’s ZDF joined as a coproducer, with plans to air the show in its popular Sunday evening Nordic Noir slot. France Télévisions also came on board, followed by the BBC.

They joined Iceland’s RUV, SVT in Sweden, DR and DRK in Denmark and Finland’s YLE, while The Weinstein Company took rights for the US.

Trapped launched in Iceland in December 2015 to a 90% share of the audience – the biggest in the country’s TV history. Launches followed in Norway in January and France and the UK in February this year, while March saw the show’s arrival in Sweden and Denmark. The German debut is set for this autumn.

“The idea was never to make an international show set in Iceland, like Sky did with Fortitude,” Zimmermann says. “We wanted to do something that specifically made the audience come to Iceland and witness how people live, what the troubles are; to create a really authentic drama.”

Trapped had originally been plotted in Icelandic, the language in which the show is filmed. But an English treatment was written up and sent to Bradley. He then wrote the script in English as part of a mini writers room that also included Zimmermann, French writer Sonia Moyersoen and the original Icelandic writer Sigurjón Kjartansson – who translated the finished scripts back into Icelandic for filming.

Trapped stars
Trapped stars Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (right)

Bradley, who describes joining the project as a “no-brainer,” explains: “Klaus set up a fantastic system where, after I wrote two episodes, we’d meet for a week and plan the next two, and then I’d go away and write them in English.

“Sigurjón was always the one to check what I wrote. In my first draft, I had some people with umbrellas because the weather was terrible – but apparently people in Iceland don’t use umbrellas. There were other interesting points, like if you write that a cop goes home and has a glass of whisky – well, no, he doesn’t in Iceland. Instead, he has a glass of milk, which is a lovely detail. Because it was an Icelandic project in the first place and because of Sigurjón’s involvement, we were always grounded in Icelandic reality.”

Zimmermann adds: “We worked out the stories together and then Clive would execute the script. We would all comment on that and once the English script was finished, it was translated into Icelandic by Sigurjón. There were some changes because of the translation. Icelanders speak with fewer words – there’s one scene where there’s a big drama and lots of dialogue and the actor just makes a ‘hmm’ noise. This is the translation, but it works.”

Despite the number of broadcast partners, Zimmermann says the success of the series’ development came down to the amount of time the four-strong creative team spent in the writers room. “We had eight months to write 10 scripts, in a team of four with Clive doing the writing,” he says. “Every two months we spent the week together and two or three times we went to a small cabin in Iceland. In the evening we watched TV shows and in the daytime we plotted terrible things happening in Iceland.

“This atmosphere and working structure is part of how this project was generated. The show has a very nice pace. It starts slow but it picks up more and more speed, and in every second episode there is something happening you wouldn’t have imagined – someone jumping out of a helicopter or an avalanche coming down on the village, for example. Hopefully the audience will wonder what will happen to the town and the hero in the next episode because they’ll be thinking it can’t possibly be more terrible than what has already happened.

“It was quite an unusual development process but it’s an encouraging example of how television works today where you have a very original story, setting and a solid first script, with everything you expect for a primetime drama. In Iceland the production process is terribly complicated but the price is quite competitive. Part of the equation was that we weren’t asking broadcasters for a fortune. We were asking for a reasonable proportion of the risk to be taken by several parties at the same time, and that’s how the budget slowly came together.”

The series focuses on a murder in a town cut off from the outside world by a storm
The series focuses on a murder in a town cut off from the outside world by a storm

Costing more than double the average production in the country, Trapped wasn’t cheap by Icelandic standards but Zimmermann says the results justify the outlay: “A normal Icelandic production can be produced for as little as €300,000 (US$326,200) an hour, and this is more than €750,000 – but the standard of the production is comparable to any high-end Scandinavian drama.

“The reason for that is the production company behind this is owned by Baltasar, who is mainly a feature film director and only works to the highest quality standards available. So the equipment was top, there was enough time to produce and some of the actors have international careers. The lead actor, Ólafur, is working with Steven Spielberg on The BFG so it’s the crème de la crème of Iceland on screen.”

Key to getting the broadcasters on board was convincing them Trapped would be unlike anything they had seen before, and the combination of Kormákur’s back catalogue, the Icelandic setting and Zimmermann’s experience in international drama completed the package.

“They were not commissioning broadcasters. Their level of commitment was below the commission, with less control, but the process was still very collaborative,” says Zimmermann, revealing how the broadcasters fell into the production process together.

“The director does his cut, I give my input. You send it to a few of the broadcasters and you get a feel for who wants to be more involved. A channel like BBC4 expects something authentic. It doesn’t have the infrastructure to be hands-on, so it relies on the mechanic to work.

“ZDF, however, was very hands on. The slot where it wanted to air Trapped is very competitive. We also had a lot of discussions with France Télévisions, which has similar needs for its audience. It came to rough-cut screenings, so that was the heart of the process in the end.

“We had some difficult moments, especially when things became very Icelandic. We had a comment on the first rough cut where someone said there was too much snow. The weather starts to get very bad after the first 10 minutes because the village is trapped by an ice storm, so there’s really terrible weather in the rest of the episode.

“The first reaction was, ‘We can’t have all this snow,’ but it looks fantastic with the effects, sound and music. We had to go through that process of saying this is a winter show, an Icelandic show.”

For Bradley, Trapped marked his first venture into a writers room, and he says he would happily repeat the process – perhaps during season two, which is under discussion. “The four of us would be in the writers room for several days. In the UK, you don’t do that. More and more projects are starting to have a version of the American writers room but it’s still quite rare. It was the first time I’d done anything like that. Rather than spend several hours with producers and script editors, spending days thrashing out the details was one of many things about the experience that I want to repeat.

“It’s an incredibly productive way of proceeding with developing a story. I’d never done 10 hours before and it’s amazing having that length of time. Obviously you have to find a story to fill it but to then have characters you can develop compared with an hour-and-a-half running time, it’s a great experience.”

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