Tag Archives: Simon Kaijser

Changing shades of noir

Ten years after Forbrydelsen (The Killing) first aired and with the final season of Bron/Broen (The Bridge) starting next month, Nordic crime drama has dominated the international landscape for a decade. But what does the future hold for the genre and where will those who make it go next?

The impact of Nordic noir has changed the landscape of television drama forever. It gave audiences around the world a taste for serialised TV beyond what comes out of the US, and spawned thousands of imitations, including high-profile Hollywood remakes such as AMC’s version of The Killing (based on Denmark’s Forbrydelsen) and FX’s version of The Bridge (originally Swedish/Danish drama Bron/Broen).

But in an industry that prides itself on ingenuity, the region does not want to be seen as resting on its laurels. In the small town of Lubeck, northern Germany, the film festival Nordic Film Days recently showcased the latest attempts to reboot the crime genre.

“We were nervous about the reviews,” says Bjorn Ekeberg, writer of Grenseland, TV2 Norway’s new series about an Oslo cop who goes to visit his home town only to find his family is implicated in a local murder. But much to Ekeberg’s delight, the reviews were very positive. One newspaper gave it a top rating, though the title of the review read: “Makes you forget you’re watching Nordic noir,” underlining the point not only that audiences at home are sometimes harder to please than foreign ones, but also that the backlash against genre is significant

Swedish/Danish drama The Bridge has proved hugely influential

Ekeberg, who had worked on Valkyrien, another hit from Norway, believes audiences and reviewers received Grenseland well because they were not merely watching a crime series. It’s a “family drama at its core,” he says. “The crime story is the ‘wrapping,’ so to speak.” This twist on the genre was noticed by Sky Deutschland and Netflix, which have bought the rights to air the eight-part series.

Innan vi dör (Before We Die) experiments with a different narrative style from what viewers are used to in Nordic crime. In the series from Sweden’s public broadcaster SVT, detective Hanna Svensson discovers a new threat from a restructuring of power in Stockholm’s underworld.

But the story does not start with a spectacular murder that is then investigated over 10 episodes, a structure familiar to many crime drama viewers. “This is different,” says director Simon Kaijser. “It’s not relying one on question – who did it? – It’s relying on constant tension.”

“The fast pace is different to much of Scandi noir,” adds the show’s writer, Niklas Rockström. “Every scene is moving the story forward. In Wallander [a show for which Rockström also wrote episodes], the audience is always told how you get the information that then leads to the next scene. In Before We Die, we’re trying to jump to the next plot point. The Americans are good at that; we’re trying to use their way.”

Óskar Thór Axelsson

Stella Blómkvist (pictured top) is the first original Icelandic show ordered by regional SVoD service Viaplay and was the most dramatic move away from the world of Nordic noir to be shown at Lubeck. “It’s noir,” says director Oskar Thor Axelsson, “but it’s not Scandi noir.”

The femme fatale character of Stella (who is based upon the heroine of a series of books by a mysterious and anonymous author rumoured to be part of Iceland’s political establishment), electronica soundtrack and neon visual style of the show give it an air of film noir on steroids rather than nordic noir’s naturalism. The world has its own rules that are not our reality. “You can get a crazy idea and throw it into the world and it will be fine, because that’s the world,” says Axelsson, a successful feature film director who also directed episodes of 2016 Icelandic hit Trapped.

Grenseland uses some of the familiar visual tropes of Nordic noir, such as beautiful shots of the forest on the border between Sweden and Norway, and thus eases the viewer into a world they are familiar with – but then gives them something different. Other shows, meanwhile, actively shun these tropes.

Before We Die does not make use of the famous aerial shots of lush Nordic landscapes or impressive settings (the classic example being the bridge between Malmo and Copenhagen in The Bridge) that have come to define Nordic noir.

“We did not want to do that. The story is told from the point of view of the mother and son, shot on the ground, from their point of view,” says Kaijser, who is also a feature film director. Kaijser made the acclaimed film Stockholm East with producer Maria Nordenberg, who collaborated with him again on Before We Die.

Hassel stars Ola Rapace as a hard-boiled cop

Hassel, a Swedish series (also from Viaplay), is based on as series of pulp-fiction novels about a cop investigating serious crime in Stockholm. The books were adapted for the small screen in the 1980s and the recently rebooted version is very much in the trend of moving away from the visual style of Nordic noir.

“We have used a warmer colour palette, using reds instead of blues that form the colder world of Nordic noir,” says the show’s writer, Henrik Jansson-Schweizer. “Much of Hassel is shot on location, in particular around the bridges that connect the famous, beautiful old town of Stockholm to the less wealthy suburbs. Again, this is a statement that we are in a different world with different characters.”

“Hassel is not at home drinking scotch and listening to opera,” says director Amir Chamdin, a former musician and music video and feature film director. “He came from the streets, from the same neighbourhood as the bad guys. He’s not a desk cop, he’s a street cop. He’s going to be even badder than the bad guys to get the job done.” This also reflects Chamdin and Jansson-Schweizer’s influences, which include classic 70s films such as The French Connection and Mean Streets as well as the TV cop shows they fondly recall from their childhoods, such as Baretta and Kojak.

Chamdin’s musical background provides an exhilarating operatic rhythm to the show that is in obvious contrast to the moody, brooding and ethereal soundscapes of Nordic noir. Hassel’s hard-boiled titular character, played by Ola Rapace, is certainly taking cops in a new direction from the heroes and heroines of the genre. Symbolical of the changing of the guard, one of Rapace’s early career breaks was playing Wallander’s junior officers in the Swedish series, in which Krister Henriksson played the grouchy detective.

New NRK drama Monster is unmistakably Nordic noir

Ironically, however, the show is similar to traditional Nordic noir in that it reflects social issues in Sweden right now. “There’s a big debate going on that the police don’t get enough pay, so we tried to reflect that,” says Jansson-Schweizer. Chamdin adds: “They are not wealthy people. It’s not a fancy lifestyle, it’s a commitment. Cops are struggling, man.”

But not all crime shows screened at Lubeck were trying to escape the Nordic noir tradition. NRK’s Monster is instantly recognisable as pure Nordic noir – the atmospheric and beautiful Norwegian Tundra landscape, the missing girl, a lone female detective. Even the cinematography is done by Jørgen Johansson, who worked on the genre’s most iconic series, The Bridge and The Killing. But somehow the combined storytelling skills of writer Hans Christian Storroston and director Anne Sewitsky have created something completely new.

“We have to keep the strengths but also see where can we push the archetypes, push the conventions, push this art form into something new and figure out where we can go next,” says Storroston. International broadcasters were quick to snap up the rights to air Monster, with buyers including US cable channel Starz.

Crime drama from the Nordic region is certainly going through a transitional period. Some writers and directors are pushing at the familiar tropes of Nordic noir to come up with something new, whie others reject them completely. The level of creativity and experimentation on show at Lubeck makes it clear the Nordic industry is in rude health. It seems Scandi crime drama is on a thrilling journey that viewers from around the world will no doubt be keen to watch.

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Cinematic TV

With the popularity of TV drama showing no sign of waning, the role of the television drama director is rapidly evolving. Three of the industry’s finest give their perspective on the changing nature of their work.

Film directors? You could name a few: Scorsese, Spielberg and Coppola just for starters. The motion picture has long been a medium that belongs to the director, with audiences finding it more difficult to reel off the names of their television counterparts. Viewers may be drawn to their favourite actor or broadcaster, but small-screen directors rarely get the same credit.

But now the lines are blurring. TV dramas worldwide – not just from the UK or US – increasingly have production values comparable to motion pictures, while talent is now regularly hopping from film to TV. And TV directors are feeling the change.

“The world is changing under our feet,” says Anand Tucker (Red Riding), the director behind Channel 4 (C4) epic period saga Indian Summers.

Indian Summers
Indian Summers

“The movies I’ve made for the most part, the ones I enjoyed, have been in the indie sector. It feels like these stories are now migrating from the cinema and into TV. I would say television is now the new indie movie.”

Tom Shankland, director of the BBC’s 2014 thriller The Missing (pictured top), starring Cold Feet actor James Nesbitt, echoes this view. Shankland, who also directed Ripper Street, maintains the TV director now has more influence over the shape of a programme than ever before.

“The director’s role is becoming increasingly important as the challenge to be more creative increases,” he says. “There’s so much good TV out there at the moment. Audiences still like to tune in to the actors they love, but if directors add their own style to a show, particularly in the world of drama, they are going to break new ground.”

But television dramas’ flavour-of-the-month status doesn’t guarantee a smash hit. The craft has moved on, and it’s credit to TV directors experimenting with new forms, narrative arcs, fresh editing styles, small-screen cinematography and much more that scripted series are now a more exciting prospect for global audiences.

Simon Kaijser
Simon Kaijser

Describing his TV work in terms that would be unthinkable a few decades ago, Scandinavian director Simon Kaijser, currently working on forthcoming BBC period drama Life in Squares, says he “likes to be subjective.”

“I hate the camera having what I call a ‘sixth sense,’” he adds. “If the camera arrives at a specific position at the perfect time, I feel like the camera knows it’s going to happen and that’s wrong.

“When doing a scene, I try to focus on something that’s going on somewhere else. You don’t always remember the person talking, so why not focus on the person on the other side of the street getting dressed?

“I always like to do a lot of pans to give a sense of stuff that’s played out in front of you – it gives an unrehearsed feel. But it’s funny how rehearsed it can actually be to give it this look.”

Tucker’s period drama Indian Summers, set in the final years of British colonial rule in India, was commissioned by C4 in 2013. Produced by New Pictures – the company’s first pick-up from C4 – it is a coproduction with US pubcaster PBS, and will air in 2015 as part of its Masterpiece strand. Paul Rutman (Vera) is the writer, with Rebecca Eaton executive producing for PBS-owned WGBH in the US, along with Charlie Pattinson and Simon Curtis.

The project is not typical for C4, with period pieces in the UK usually featuring on the BBC or ITV. And with this in mind, Tucker was determined not to make another version of iconic 1980s ITV drama The Jewel in the Crown (1984), which also chronicled the final days of the British Raj in India. If that wasn’t pressure enough, The Jewel in the Crown is often regarded as one of the greatest TV series to grace the UK’s small screen.

Tears Without Gloves
Tears Without Gloves

“Indian Summers is political and personal, and frankly the idea of doing something of this scale on television was really exciting,” Tucker says. “I remember watching Jewel In The Crown and thinking it was one of the best things ever. It felt that if we could get this right it could be something on that scale; something that’s fun to watch on a really wet and miserable night in February.

“But you can’t just go and do The Jewel in the Crown II. It’s 2014 and everything’s changed, so the challenge is how you reinvent a period drama while still being true to all the things that make period drama great; like beautiful young people in gorgeous flowing dresses, and tea at four o’clock.”

Tucker achieves his vision by bringing a modernity to his shooting style. For several scenes, he used a MoviCAM, the steadicam that allows filmmakers to move around with dignity. “It allows you to achieve those lyrical, elegant flowing shots you’d expect to see in a costume drama,” he explains.

Indian Summers was shot in Malaysia, a burgeoning production territory that recently saw the opening of the Pinewood Iskander Malaysia Studios. The studio is where Netflix shot its epic period drama Marco Polo – touted as one of the most expensive TV shows ever made – and Tucker, who himself was brought up in South East Asia, now believes the country has a lot to offer TV drama producers.

“Malaysia is trying to become the South Africa of the Far East, as it’s instigated a very aggressive tax credit,” he says. “We had to recreate 1930s India and the Raj in the country. It was challenging, but in Penang we had the essence of English colonial rule.

Anand Tucker
Anand Tucker

“My job in setting up the show was also about creating the infrastructure. The most any local crews had done were a couple of movies or commercials, so it was also about training them to manage a 160 or 170-day shoot. The tricky thing was how to balance bringing a British crew over while also empowering the Asian operation.”

Only time will tell whether Indian Summers will receive the same critical acclaim as The Jewel in the Crown, but the extraordinary amount of work poured in to the project is not being understated.

Another drama pushing the genre forward is BBC1’s The Missing, which ended its eight-episode run in December to rave reviews in the UK. Unsurprisingly, writers Jack and Harry Williams are already in talks for a second season.

One of director Tom Shankland’s biggest challenges was to direct the entire thriller, after producers opted not to follow the norm of choosing different directors to work on individual episodes. “Initially, it started as this practical challenge because the scripts were split 50/50 between 2006 and 2014,” he says. “One half of the drama was set in winter, while the other was in summer during the Football World Cup. We were lucky to have a great schedule where we could film summer in summer and winter in winter and then go to the cutting room.

“So it was suggested that I’d do all of the episodes. As we were quite ahead of the game with strong scripts, and readings had been done ahead of the initial preparations, it was great for a director to get in early on all of that. I was a bit wary doing a 101-day shoot, although because it was one long linear story broken into different time zones, it was a fantastic opportunity to do what was essentially an incredibly long film.”

Shankland’s vision for The Missing was always a naturalistic one, exemplified by the fact he didn’t want to make the cuts between 2006 and 2014 too obvious.

“I wanted to make the audience pay a little bit of attention to when these transitions were happening on-screen. So we tried to make the switches as authentic as possible,” he explains. “We played a tiny little game with the camera where we used slightly older lenses for the past to give a little bit more warmth and softness, but nothing too extreme. Then it was just a case of waiting for good weather in June and shit weather in January while Jimmy Nesbitt got soaked, and hoping that he could stand a lot of rain and water, which he did.”

Tom Shankland
Tom Shankland

For Simon Kaijser, who filmed three-part BBC drama Life in Squares on location in London and east Sussex, the role of the global TV director has now changed as audiences start to embrace dramas from other territories.

“The success of Scandinavian drama has given Scandi producers, directors and writers more confidence to do bolder stuff,” he says. Kaiser previously directed Swedish broadcaster SVT’s three-part drama Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves. “The Scandinavian industry has more confidence than it did 10 years ago; it started with the Danes, but now Sweden is catching up on longer runs.”

Wherever a drama is made, the challenges remain the same, whether this is dealing with a tight shooting schedule, small budgets or bad weather to put them behind schedule. But isn’t that all part of the fun?

Shankland thinks so, and highlights a particular car chase scene (normally a big-budget proposition even in a feature film) as an example of how to literally cut corners in TV drama direction. “I felt very happy that we took a classic genre and did something a bit special without having to do a low-budget-level Hollywood car chase, which is always doomed to failure,” he says.

“When you have the challenge of creating a compelling action scene in TV, as I know from Ripper Street, you can think ‘oh God, how am I going to fit this in a 101-day schedule for the whole series?’ We decided we just couldn’t do the Fast and the Furious version. And we could barely do the first 10 seconds of the French Connection version.”

Instead, Shankland’s team had a eureka moment when they decided “not to take the chase outside of the car.”

“Because we were more of a character-based thriller, we decided to be subjective and just stay in the car, seeking a tiny bit of help from our friends in post production,” he explains.

“We managed to get this very expensive bit of kit – a giant pod you put the actor in. We took over a tiny village in Belgium and divided it up into sections. On the rest of the set we filmed the crash, and then we put the scenes together.

“We ended up with something we were happy with. It put a lot of pressure on the sound guys. The mixer, for instance, wasn’t quite happy with the we track laid so he went off and filmed himself thrashing around in a car – it was fantastic. We then built up the layers of sound.”

Overcoming these kinds of challenges is part and parcel of a TV director’s daily job. Pieced together, they can make an extremely convincing bit of work. As Tucker says, the “world is changing” and it now seems there’s far more flexibility both in method and style.

The small-screen director is no longer working in the shadow of his silver-screen counterpart. Soon it might be the other way around. It’s definitely the case that many directors now see the opportunity to make a film in eight one-hour episodes as very appealing.

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