Tag Archives: The Same Sky

Final crossing

After four seasons starring in Swedish/Danish smash-hit series Bron/Broen (The Bridge), Sofia Helin is setting up her own shows and helping to coordinate a protest about the way women are treated in the film and TV business in Sweden.

As Nordic noir continues to ride a wave of global popularity, one show still stands taller than the rest. Wallander and Forbrydelsen (The Killing) came before it and new dramas will surely follow it, but until something repeats its international success, Broen/Bron (The Bridge) is arguably the biggest hit to come out of the Scandinavian crime genre.

Central to its success has been Sofia Helin’s star turn as Saga Norén, a brilliant yet unorthodox Swedish detective who teams up with her Danish counterpart to solve a series of gruesome murders discovered around the Øresund Bridge that links Malmö in Sweden to Danish capital Copenhagen.

Helin is now well known around the world thanks to her iconic role in a series that will conclude after its fourth season, which began on New Year’s Day on Denmark’s DR and Sweden’s SVT.

“Of course I cried on the last day [of filming], we all did. It’s been an amazing journey, a long journey, a deep journey, a hard journey,” Helin says of working on the show, which first aired in 2011. “My daughter was one year old when we started and now she’s eight, so it’s been a [significant] period of my life and it has opened so many doors. I learned so much from it. It feels good to say goodbye but I will always have it very close to my heart.”

Sofia Helin has starred in The Bridge as Saga Norén for four seasons

The actor says she is now considering what to do next. She has already crossed borders to star in The Same Sky, a German-produced spy thriller set during the Cold War. “That’s where I am now, thinking what can I do with this platform. I’ve come to the conclusion I love being a storyteller and I love being a part of the process.

“I’ve learned so much by developing The Bridge more and more each season that I feel now I have to move on and use that, so that’s what I’m doing. I’ve also been longing to work together with other female actors. For a long time, the industry has looked like five men and one woman in the middle like a jewel, so I look forward to working with my female colleagues.”

To that end, Helin is already developing two new projects. The first, Get Naked, is described as a comedy about female sexuality, particularly focusing on older women. Miso Film is producing alongside distributor FremantleMedia International.

“After a certain age, women just disappear,” Helin states. “If you go into a store and you see all the newspapers, you see there are no mature women. They’ve just vanished. Mature women’s sexuality is just invisible, but we have it and it’s a strong power.

“Our inspiration for that show is [HBO hit] Girls, which does the same thing but with younger women. It’s about four characters and they are all having problems and issues. It starts with them being all by themselves thinking about this topic, and they come together to talk about it and do something about it.”

Helin as as Lauren Faber in German-produced The Same Sky

The second project, Heder (Honour), is a thriller set in a law firm that works with victims of sexual crimes. Helin created the series with fellow actors and executive producers Julia Dufvenius, Anja Lundqvist and Alexandra Rapaport, who all star. It is produced for Discovery by Bigster and distributed by Eccho Rights.

“They have a common past that brings them together for life that they try to avoid,” Helin explains of the show’s characters. “The big philosophical question is: is it possible to pay for your guilt or what you’ve done by doing good things? Also, the word ‘honour’ is chosen specifically because when you are harassed or raped, someone takes your inner honour from you, and when you say, ‘That’s not right what you did to me,’ it’s a redemption process.”

Honour is a particularly timely piece, coming in the wake of the sexual misconduct allegations coming out of Hollywood and elsewhere in the film and television business and the #MeToo campaign on social media, both of which have had a big impact in Sweden.

Helin has been a particularly vocal supporter of the #tystnadtagning (#silenceaction) movement, which saw almost 600 Swedish actresses sign a letter calling out the Swedish film and TV industry for failing to protect women from sexual abuse.

“It started with #MeToo and then, after a while, a few of us actresses felt we had to say something publicly about what it’s like in our business,” she recalls. “We started writing on Facebook, just like 10 of us, and then in 36 hours we had more than 1,000 members. So many horrible stories were written on this group, so we realised we had to do something more – to tell the world about our world – so we started a revolution, you could say.

The Bridge is currently in its final season

“We want to change the industry from the ground up. Just stop behaving like that. For all of us, it’s a new way of looking at the world so we have to learn together. It’s not a matter of us and them, it’s about doing it together. Hopefully it’s going to spread throughout the world so we can start talking about this without just blaming and having a war.

“But I’m a bit worried that it will soon be yesterday’s news, which is why we have to keep working and take responsibility for this, what’s happened. I think at least in Scandinavia this is a revolution, and I think it is in Hollywood also.”

This isn’t the only movement taking place in Sweden, however, with Helin identifying another change in society that has come to light through the making of The Bridge.

“This season is about identity and it’s been so amazing, and sad also, to go through this period because when we started the show, the bridge was a symbol of gathering,” she concludes. “It was an open bridge where you could go between countries. The cities of Malmö and Copenhagen were growing together and there was a very positive feeling around the bridge.

“Now it’s a bridge we use to close the border, to control our countries. It’s where many tragic events happen because people aren’t let in. It’s a completely different situation to when we started so this season will reflect that, of course. It’s still The Bridge, but you have to move with society.”

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The Sky’s the limit

A story of divided families and a divided city, Der gleiche Himmel (The Same Sky) unwraps several different strands taking place in Berlin in 1974.

East German agent Lars (Tom Schilling) is sent to West Berlin as a ‘Romeo’ agent on a mission to seduce high-ranking British intelligence officer Lauren (Sofia Helin). Elsewhere, gay teacher Axel (Hannes Wegener) takes dramatic steps to escape the oppressive East German regime, and Lars’s cousin Klara (Stephanie Amarell), a talented swimmer, proves she is willing to do anything to join the East’s Olympic team by taking pills that produce disturbing side effects.

Speaking to DQ TV, actors Helin, Schilling, Friederike Becht and writer Paula Milne reveal the origins of the drama and the challenges associated with producing this six-hour series.

It is produced by UFA Fiction, Rainmark Films and distributor Beta Films for German broadcaster ZDF and is due to debut next month. It will also air on Netflix.

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The spy who loved me

Writer Paula Milne and director Oliver Hirschbiegel discuss their upcoming Cold War drama Der gleiche Himmel (The Same Sky), in which a ‘Romeo’ agent is sent on a seductive mission in 1970s Berlin.

When it was first released in cinemas, German feature Downfall was praised for its gripping portrayal of Hitler’s last stand and Bruno Ganz’s striking performance as the embattled Führer.

Twelve years on, however, Oliver Hirshbiegel’s film is largely remembered for one iconic scene inside Hitler’s bunker – in which he rants and raves at his officers – that has been parodied hundreds of times to comedic effect. A quick YouTube search can find the dictator angrily lashing out at news that he has been banned from Xbox Live or at the latest plot twist in Game of Thrones.

“That’s hard to top,” Hirschbiegel jokes. “I can be very proud of this phenomenon – it’s a first in film history where a scene has been used over and over again. The most recent one I’ve seen is about [British politician] Boris Johnson finding out the UK voted to leave the European Union – it’s brilliant and very funny.”

Oliver Hirshbiegel (left) directs Tom Schilling, who plays Lars, on set

Whether the director’s latest project, six-part Cold War thriller Der gleiche Himmel (The Same Sky) for German broadcaster ZDF, can earn similar cult status remains to be seen. But on the back of smash-hit spy dramas Deutschland 83 and The Night Manager, it’s certainly tapping into a genre riding a wave of popularity.

Set in 1970s Berlin, the story centres on East German agent Lars (Tom Schilling) who is sent to West Berlin as a ‘Romeo’ agent on a mission to seduce high-ranking British intelligence officer Lauren (Sofia Helin, pictured top).

Elsewhere, gay teacher Axel (Hannes Wegener) takes dramatic steps to escape the oppressive East German regime, and Lars’ cousin Klara (Stephanie Amarell), a talented swimmer, proves she is willing to do anything to join the East’s Olympic swimming team by taking pills that produce disturbing side effects.

A story of divided families and a divided city, The Same Sky is written by Paula Milne (The Politician’s Wife) and produced by UFA Fiction, distributor Beta Film and Mia Film, in association with Rainmark Films. Netflix has picked up the series for multiple countries worldwide, including English-speaking territories.

The show has its origins as a passion project for Beta CEO Jan Mojto, who had been involved in 2006 Oscar-winning film The Lives of Others and was interested in commissioning a TV series focused on divided Berlin.

And Milne – who is no stranger to Germany, having penned 1990 drama Die Kinder (The Children) for BBC1 – was approached by Rainmark’s Tracey Scoffield to develop Mojto’s ambitions further. “It was very spy-orientated,” Milne recalls of the initial treatment, “but I felt it should have been more than that. So I re-pitched it and was commissioned to write the scripts. Originally it was going to be in English, but then ZDF got involved and it became German.

“Oliver did all the translations himself – during prep, he would take two hours off every afternoon and translate the whole lot. He would call me and say, ‘We don’t have a word for this, do you have another one?’

“He then printed the scripts with my English on one page and the German version next to it. We worked really well together and, because he was also directing, he was hugely loyal to the material as he was partly involved in delivering it.”

The series also stars acclaimed The Bridge actor Sofia Helin

The Same Sky led the writer to immerse herself in research about the Stasi – the East German security force – and the use of Romeo spies. The discovery of a defunct NSA listening station on the outskirts of Berlin also gave Milne a location in which to plant Helin’s intelligence officer.

“We were able to put the characters in there and it opened up a whole new area of research into listening signals,” she says. “It transpired that domes found in the middle of this forest were used to disguise the direction in which the radars were facing, and they often faced West as much as East. That gave it a contemporary conduit [referencing whistleblower Edward Snowden’s 2013 leak of NSA surveillance practices]. It’s always important to look at what resonates with a contemporary audience because otherwise you’re just doing a curiosity piece about the past.”

Milne also stresses the importance of authenticity: “It’s crucial when you do a piece like this, set in the past, that you don’t have what I call ‘precognition with hindsight.’ You don’t write it knowing what happened. You have to write it in the moment and that really helps with the authenticity.”

Hirschbiegel says he was fascinated by the story and immediately hit it off with Milne. “She has a very good way of writing and describing the world and the characters,” the director reveals. “She hardly ever gave me notes and for me, it was irritating – she was totally happy with the results. She said I was brilliant and wonderful, but I kept telling her, ‘You wrote it. It’s a good script!’”

Behind the camera, Hirschbiegel says he tries not to over-stylise the look of a show, instead admitting that he’s a “slave to the story” and keeps his focus on how each scene progresses the plot. But for The Same Sky, strong visual consideration was certainly employed to capture the look and feel of the period and the disparity between East and West Berlin.

Contrasting colour palettes were used to represent the two sides of the city, with hand-held cameras used more often when filming scenes set in the East. Shots in the West, Hirschbiegel explains, were “more stately, more static.”

The Same Sky has been picked up by Netflix for multiple territories

The director continues: “The idea was for the audience to immediately recognise whether a scene is set in the East or the West. But the challenge was not being able to use any real locations, as we shot in Prague. So you just look at lots of images and try to find matches where you’re shooting. I created my own Kurfurstendamm [a grand boulevard in Berlin], though it is actually smaller than the original.

“The East was easier. They had these eastern bloc pre-fab housing areas everywhere in the East and also in Prague, so we used those. But back in the day, West Berlin was not in good shape. There were lots of ruins and run-down houses, while in the East, all these pre-fab buildings were new because they were built in the 1960s and 70s. Going to Berlin or Prague now, all these old facades have been renovated, while the pre-fab buildings are all fucked up and run-down. So it’s a bit of a challenge to find the proper locations to match what it looked like then.”

Describing The Same Sky as a “serial, not a closed series,” Milne is now preparing a story treatment for a potential second season – though the show’s future depends on how season one is received when it airs in early 2017.

“Ultimately,” she adds, “this is a story about ordinary people who are living in extraordinary times and are forced to make decisions perhaps none of us are confronted with today. It has a morality under it without, I hope, ever being preachy – but I don’t answer the questions, I just pose them!”

As for Hirschbiegel, the director admits he’s now turning down movie projects because he wants to work in television, and has already signed on to direct an episode in the second season of Showtime drama Billions. “It’s more cool right now and it happens so much faster,” he says of the small screen, “and often the scripts are way more relevant and daring. It’s much more of an adventure now to do television than it is to do a movie.”

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Trade secrets: DQ delves into BBC’s The Secret Agent

Toby Jones turns spy in thriller The Secret Agent, adapted from Joseph Conrad’s novel by screenwriter Tony Marchant.

Tony Marchant
Tony Marchant

Is 2016 the year of the spy? From the continuing international popularity of German hit Deutschland 83, break-out US series Quantico and BBC series London Spy to Emmy nominations for John le Carré adaptation The Night Manager and Cold War thriller The Americans, there’s no shortage of covert operations on the small screen.

Fans of espionage thrillers can also look forward to Epix’s first original drama Berlin Station, CBS’s MacGyver and Fox reboot 24: Legacy all airing this autumn, as well as the return of long-running Showtime series Homeland; and, looking further ahead, forthcoming series SS-GB and The Same Sky, both due in early 2017 in the UK and Germany respectively.

“In some ways it’s a coincidence there have been quite a few spy stories this year but they are just manifestations of the bigger genre thriller,” says television writer Tony Marchant. “Toby Jones once said the great attraction of spy dramas is we all feel we’re being watched these days. That’s maybe why they’re so popular.

“They’re also about identity and concealing identities and we’re all pretty conscious of that because when we’re online, we can be different things. Maybe it’s in tune with some idea of the fluidity of identity these days, who knows!”

Another new entry to the genre is Marchant’s latest project, The Secret Agent, which is currently airing in the UK on BBC1.

 

David Dawson as Vladimir and Toby Jones as Verloc
David Dawson as Vladimir and Toby Jones as Verloc

Based on the Joseph Conrad book of the same name, the aforementioned Jones stars as Verloc, whose seedy Soho shop is a front for his role as an agent working for the Russian Embassy, spying on a group of London anarchists.

Under pressure to create a bomb outrage that the Russians hope will lead the British government to crack down on violent extremists, Verloc drags his unsuspecting family into a tragic terror plot.

It was executive producer Simon Heath who suggested Marchant adapt Conrad’s book, which by coincidence the writer had been reading only weeks earlier.

“You’re just struck by its prescience and the fact that it’s not just about geopolitical manipulations,” Marchant says of the 1907 text. “At the heart of it is a domestic tragedy, which in the end is probably the best reason for me doing it. You have to get past Conrad’s scorn, and the tone of the book is beset with irony, but the one person he does care about in the book is Winnie [Verloc’s wife, played in the series by This Is England’s Vicky McClure], so it was important to make her absolutely the bedrock of the piece. Although most people think it’s about Verloc, in the end, once you’ve seen all three episodes or read the book, you realise the person to whom the biggest tragedy befalls is Winnie.”

Winnie is played by This Is England’s Vicky McClure
Winnie is played by This Is England’s Vicky McClure

Marchant is no stranger to adaptations. His previous television credits include Great Expectations, Crime & Punishment and Canterbury Tales.

The Secret Agent was a trickier proposition, he reveals, as he faced multiple points of view, a non-chronological storyline and important events that are reported by Conrad’s characters but not seen first-hand by readers of the book.

“The general rule with adaptations is you try to find something that personally appeals, that chimes with your own preoccupations and obsessions,” Marchant explains. “That should be your first response or impulse with an adaptation, but with the others I’ve done, they have been more structurally straightforward. The difficulty with Great Expectations is the familiarity of it, Crime & Punishment was difficult but again not structurally, it’s more about [the character] Raskolnikov than anything. This was difficult because it was a modernist novel. But also it wasn’t just the structure that was tricky, it was the tone as well, which is quite scornful of most of the characters.”

Stephen Graham as Verloc’s adversary Chief Inspector Heat
Stephen Graham as Verloc’s adversary Chief Inspector Heat

Marchant initially developed the three-part series with producer World Productions’ Heath and Priscilla Parish, with an emphasis to build a plot that continually drove its characters forward through the story. This meant creating further scenes not mentioned by Conrad, such as the professor sitting on a bus with a bomb, leading to an encounter with Stephen Graham’s Inspector Heat.

“With adaptations, you have to love the book and you have to have a healthy disrespect for it at the same time,” admits Marchant, who has also written series including Garrow’s Law, Public Enemies and Leaving. “You have to tell yourself there’s something missing or that something doesn’t work. But if you do decide to embrace it as a thriller, you must make sure the characterisation and the complexity of the characterisation isn’t being compromised.

“You don’t make it a vacuous hell-for-leather thriller; you’ve got to make it full of tension and jeopardy and intrigue. The novel is called The Secret Agent so I think you’re entitled to a bit of licence in terms of the genre.”

On the Edinburgh set, which doubled for 1886 London, that licence extended to the actors, who were welcome to speak to Marchant about the script or individual lines they wanted to tweak or, in Jones’s case, omit altogether.

“That’s all fine,” the writer says. “If you’re working with really good actors, you have to respect the fact that if they’re playing it, they’ve got a great instinct for what’s right and what doesn’t convince. So I did plenty of tweaking as we were shooting it.”

The-Secret-Agent-27
Ian Hart as the Professor and Stephen Graham

Above all, it was important for Marchant and director Charles McDougall that the cast, which also includes Vicky McClure, gave completely naturalistic performances and “were not all bonnet and bodice or caught up in the fetish of period dramas.”

He continues: “If you take an adaptation like this, the great thing about this is it’s so contemporary so we’re doing it in a really modern way. That goes for the performances as well. In the end, Charles explicitly told the actors to be as natural and contemporary as you can be without it being anachronistic.”

Marchant’s writing career began in the theatre, which he credits with giving him a sense of his own voice – an influence becoming less common with the increasing scarcity of one-offs and three-parters and the popularity of genre series.

“It’s very hard for writers coming into television wherever they come from, to feel like their voice is being heard and they’re not being co-opted into writing some sort of genre show,” Marchant argues. “But I think you’ve got people like Jez Butterworth [Edge of Tomorrow] who went straight from theatre into film. Equally, you’ve got Nick Payne [The Sense of an Ending] and Mike Bartlett [Doctor Foster] who are now writing TV. That’s been quite a common trajectory for writers.

“It’s a paradox that you get bolder, bigger storytelling but that doesn’t mean the author’s voice is more clearly heard. In some ways, it can be done at the expense of authorship. If you think of TV in the past year and what’s the most authored thing you’ve seen, for me it’s Toby Jones in Marvellous [written by Peter Bowker]. That just seemed to be utterly unique, personal and authored – something that bigger dramas could never be.”

There are exceptions, however, and proof that writers can be heard, though they are found in the US – an industry Marchant adds is more advanced than British television.

“The momentum is really in big shows but if people are going to invest amounts of money into certain kinds of dramas, they want to take fewer risks and it’s more likely a show is going to be in a genre than be singular or perverse,” he says. “There are exceptions – something like Mr Robot is a great show but you’d have to say US TV has evolved a bit more in how to be big and authored. You’d say they’re in a slightly more advanced place than us.”

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