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.
Terror comes to Copenhagen when a group of people are taken hostage aboard a subway train. DQ chats to the creator and producer of Danish drama Gidseltagningen (Below the Surface).
Drama series can be years in the making – yet the team behind Danish hostage series
Gidseltagningen (Below the Surface) went from idea to air in just over a year.
The show’s debut on Discovery Networks-owned Kanal 5 earlier this month was the culmination of a remarkable journey for creator/director Kaspar Barfoed and producer Morten Kjems Hytten Juhl, who came together to bring to life a premise that had already been pitched to the network.
SAM Productions – set up by writers Soren Sveistrup (The Killing) and Adam Price (Borgen) plus producer Meta Louise Foldager Sorensen (A Royal Affair) – had taken the idea of a drama following a hostage situation in Copenhagen to the channel in fall 2015, before Sorensen approached Barfoed to develop the story.
“There were no stops, we just kept moving,” Barfoed tells DQ. “We developed the idea for two or three months, then we got a writers room up and running and started writing the episodes. We went straight into pre-production and started shooting in September 2016, so it was 12 months from the idea to shooting.”
Set across eight days, the eight-part series sees a terror task force led by Philip Norgaard (played by Johannes Lassen) and Louise Falk (Sara Hjort Ditlevsen) attempt to rescue 15 people who are being held hostage on a subway train.
Reporter Naja Toft (Paprika Steen) acts as a go-between with the hostages and police as the savvy captors bait the press with information about the pasts of each of their hostages. And as a media frenzy erupts, the country becomes divided over whether to negotiate with terrorists.
Below the Surface is produced by SAM for Kanal 5 and Germany’s ZDF Neo, which will air the series this autumn. StudioCanal holds distribution rights.
“The main dilemma is the fact that in Denmark, we don’t pay ransom for hostages – it’s just the law,” explains Barfoed of the conundrum at the heart of the series. “We don’t want to encourage others to do it and we don’t want to pay terrorists, which is a great concept – except when it meets reality. It means we’re going to let people die over amounts of money, so we wanted to put that dilemma in front of people.
“Then for the hostage takers, we thought you would use a journalist to let the public get to know these people and put faces on these hostages. Then let’s see if you can still keep that law. And also, perhaps rightly, the journalist feels she’s the one who can help these people, so it’s not just an evil journalist who wants to sell papers. It’s really difficult – it’s an insane dilemma. I don’t know the answer but we thought it would be interesting to ask those questions.”
Barfoed admits he was instantly drawn to the idea of a hostage drama, but adds that Below the Surface isn’t based on any specific real-life incident.
“Just hearing the word ‘hostage,’ there’s instantly a lot of drama that can grow from that. But our ambition was to look at who gets involved, who gets the phone call and what the dilemmas are. What are the tough choices someone has to make and, if you’re the one who gets taken as a hostage, what do you go through? That was really interesting and the more we talked to people, the more research we did, we found there was so much there.”
Barfoed spent several months outlining the story before linking up with four other writers, Astrid Oye, Per Daumiller, Lars K Andersen and Michael W Horsten. He then opened a writers room, which mapped out each individual episode.
“One person would go and write an outline, come back, we’d talk some more and then they would go home and write a draft,” he explains, adding that there would only be three writers in the room at a time. “We’d talk about it more and do another draft. That was the process. People in the room would change but typically it was three people beating out the story.”
With such a rapid schedule in place to get the series ready for Kanal 5’s spring schedule, lots of joined-up thinking was needed between Barfoed and producer Juhl.
This meant there were discussions from the outset about the scope of the series, how it would look and how they could maximise their modest budget.
“It could have been a totally high-end show or it could also be scaled down,” Juhl explains. “We found a reality in the middle somewhere. With the financing going on quickly, we had to develop the idea with flexibility in the budget. So we had to keep an open mind and constantly communicate, sometimes daily but always weekly.”
One key decision made early on was to build a Metro station, which would be used to complement the limited amount of location shooting the producers were able to do at a real underground station. But building the set also afforded the production team the chance to then construct the police base right on top.
“That’s quite a cheap thing to build because it’s not an actual police station, it’s more like a barracks, and it gave us a lot of flexibility in terms of shooting,” the producer says. “So with these two primary sets built and an idea that we should shoot half of the show there and the rest on location, that shaped a nice production design that we would work from.”
Other discussions had a more direct impact on the story, such as how many hostages there would be – and how many would be actors and how many would be non-speaking extras.
“That was very important because we could then write for a specific number of speaking parts, so that we didn’t deliver a script only to be told you can’t do this and you can’t do that,” says Barfoed.
“From the first arc, we knew what the beats would be. We also knew which characters we wanted to focus on in each episode. Each one has a main character we focus on, who is then a less important character in the rest of the show, so along the way you get to know the whole ensemble more. We do have a few characters in the police we get to know, but the deep character studies are with the hostages, because they are in a situation where it makes sense to reflect on who they are and how they ended up there. The thought that you could be on the train that day is something we can all relate to – those who are caught there are just unlucky. They just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Barfoed’s duties weren’t confined to the writers room, however: he also directed the first two episodes, with Christian E Christiansen and Roni Ezra helming later instalments. And rather than create a series full of overblown action sequences, Barfoed says character took centre stage, with the belief that the inherent drama of a hostage situation would be entertaining on its own merits.
“We just needed to make the characters engaging,” he says. “It has a lot of pace but we never wanted to Hollywood it up. We wanted it to feel realistic. We got really good directors to do the following episodes so I didn’t want to lead them too much. I wanted to give them the opportunity to do it themselves. Obviously we talked a lot and they saw the rushes, so they had a pretty good idea of how we shot it. We kept the crew as much as we could all the way through, so it was actually a pretty smooth transition when we changed directors and DPs.
“The basic stylistic approach is that there are two worlds – right next to each other, separated by height. But they have completely different looks and paces. It’s a dungeon down there, it’s in Copenhagen where we’re building a metro right now. And upstairs is where the negotiators and investigators work, so they want a lot of light and a place where they can move around quickly and talk to everyone. It lends itself to lots of contrasts.”
Designed as a closed-ended series, Below the Surface could return with a new challenge facing the terror task department and its main characters. But should it not get a second season, Barfoed hopes the show will leave its mark.
“We hope it will be something that is perceived as having more substance than a standard crime thriller,” he says. “It goes into the psychology of people caught up in this and takes a realistic approach to what would happen.”
And with other hostage dramas on air and in development, including Ransom and Embassy Down, it looks set to lead a new wave of crime series on television.
Writer Søren Frellesen and producer Sven Clausen tell DQ about Danish drama Mercur (Something’s Rockin’), which charts the rise and fall of an offshore radio station in the 1950s and 1960s.
The first offshore commercial radio station ever to hit European airwaves, Denmark’s Radio Mercur launched from a ship called the Cheeta in the Øresund waters off the coast of Copenhagen in 1958.
Its founders’ aim was to break the monopoly held by state-owned radio stations and bring an emerging music genre called rock ’n’ roll to the young audience that demanded to hear it.
The story of its rise and fall is now being retold in Mercur (Something’s Rockin’), a 10-part drama currently airing on TV2 Charlie that tells this true story through the eyes of three fictional protagonists.
As creator and head writer Søren Frellesen tells DQ, the drama follows “a bunch of fun and freedom-loving young people who created a popular commercial radio station back in the days when all mass media was controlled by the state.”
He continues: “From 1958 to 1962, Radio Mercur became wildly popular, mainly because they played all the new rock and pop music that Danish state radio refused to play.
“It’s a story about big dreamers and their big dreams. And back in the late ‘50s, big dreams could be just a single mother wanting her own flat. So even though the story is about how some young people got a ship and placed it in international waters between Denmark and Sweden – thus escaping the media monopoly and changing post-war Denmark – I have always felt the story is really about our three main characters growing up and finding, or not finding, their course in life.”
The first original drama series for TV2 Charlie, Mercur is produced by SAM Productions and distributed by StudioCanal in co-operation with TV2 Productions & Rights.
It debuted in Denmark with the channel’s highest-ever rating of 630,000 viewers, with deals to air the series in Norway and Sweden already tied up.
Mercur spent almost two years in development before filming began, with producer Sven Clausen recalling that, at one point, it almost wasn’t made as there were questions over whether it should be a music entertainment or politically minded drama.
“I had a call from the head of drama asking if I could look at it because she thought there was definitely a series there,” Clausen says. “I looked at three scripts and seven storylines for the remaining episodes and she was right. The real story was there but what the channel wanted was a music show, so we had to crack that one way or another.”
The solution was to bring live musical performances into each episode, filmed as if the bands were making recordings to play on the station, while an eclectic mix of international music, largely from the UK and US, was also used in the soundtrack.
Clausen continues: “The only time we don’t have a live performance is in episode one, when the radio station is not yet established. Instead, the characters go and watch [British rock ’n’ roll star] Tommy Steele perform, which he actually did in Denmark in 1958.
“I borrowed a sequence from one of his movies and we used a trick to put him in the show by having our characters backstage at the concert, watching what’s happening on stage on the small monitor, which is the film clip. Then we found a chap in London who is a lookalike so in the interval, this chap pops up and speaks a bit and that is it. And it works very well.”
In the writers room, Frellesen was assisted by co-creator Jesper Malmose and Jenny Lund Madsen. They storylined all 10 episodes together before Frellesen wrote the pilot and three other episodes, and co-wrote the final two. He also did the final drafts of the remaining episodes that were started by Malmose and Madsen.
“But I have to say, it was primarily due to the practicalities of the shoot and the mountains of notes always dropping in that further writing was necessary,” Frellesen says. “It is the first time I have had sole head writer duties, and it was important that the writers got their own voices across. Tom Fontana [Oz], one of my favourite TV writers, talks about having one vision but many voices. I was inspired by his take on team writing.”
That team ethic also extended to the director, Charlotte Sachs Bostrup, who was persuaded to shoot with just one camera in an attempt to bring an authentic 1950s look to the series.
“Being a director myself, I get a little tired of the multi-camera, ‘let’s cover everything and work it out in the editing suite’ approach,” Frellesen says frankly. “Shooting with one camera keeps the decisions on the side of the writer and director. Make up your mind before you shoot. Don’t give other people too many options. I have worked with her before and we always have a lot of script discussions – passionate yet fruitful – but looks-wise we like the same things. We like colours, we like dollies and we want to create a pleasant place to be.”
The three main characters – Anne-Marie, Jan and Flemming – are played by Neel Rønholt, Jon Lange and Andreas Jessen respectively, with each taking on their first lead roles.
“We shot seven pages a day, which is almost irresponsible, unless people are prepared, and these three actors were up to the task and then some,” Frellesen says, praising their ambition and aspiration. “The show is about those three characters coming into their own, and that is what is happening with the careers of those fine actors right now. That gave it some urgency and sincerity.
“They also, at a crucial point towards the end of the shoot, made me realise I had to do some story adjustments, because the characters took on a life of their own. They are some of the smartest actors I have ever worked with, so when they make suggestions, I listen. There is a fine line between being a push-over and being attentive and smart when actors make story suggestions.”
Former DR drama head Clausen produced the series with Stine Meldgaard, who has previously worked with film talents such as Lars Von Trier (Melancholia) and Nikolaj Arcel (A Royal Affair). Together they worked with the network to protect Frellesen’s vision for the story, which the writer says was the biggest challenge he faced.
“And I managed that due to Sven and Stine, my crack team of producers!” he says. “They took all the battles with the network and protected my vision admirably. So even if I formally didn’t have any kind of final say or cut, they protected my ideas all the way through, and if the show is terrible, it is because of me. I can’t think of one important story point I was sorry to see being overruled.”
Clausen picks up: “I put in a lot of effort in the writers room and then I sit firmly in the edit room so there’s a connection between the intention in the writers room and the final cut. I’m the guarantee for that vision.”
The producer also reveals another important aspect of the show – a secondary storyline that discusses attitudes towards homosexuality in Denmark – which, along with the music, demonstrates how culture and society was changing at the time.
“That was a remarkable way to tell the story of the past where people were opposed to anything new or anything they didn’t know about,” he adds.
From a production perspective, the relatively small budget also posed a challenge. But this was largely overcome by the fact that, in addition to several days spent filming on location, most of the four-month shoot took place on the grounds of an old naval college outside Copenhagen. There, production designer Søren Gam transformed the many rooms into every possible set needed, while additional locations such as Tivoli and Danish State Radio added further authenticity.
The college was “very good for the budget!” Clausen jokes. “Even in some of the private parts of the school, we were able to film living rooms and offices for some of the characters.”
Mercur continues the Nordic drama trend that is moving away from noirish crime thrillers and exploring different themes and genres. The central issue of youth rebellion, and the use of rock ’n’ roll music, is reminiscent of 2016 German drama Ku’damm 56, in which a young woman fights back against strict social conventions. There are also similarities to 2009 film The Boat that Rocked, about a fictitious pirate radio station that broadcasts from a ship anchored in the North Sea.
But like all good dramas, human relationships are at its heart. “All stories must come from that,” Frellesen concludes. “And on this series I also learned, or was reminded, that nobody, including myself, knows anything, as William Goldman famously put it. It’s a new game every time.”