Finnish comedy-drama Blind Donna sees its titular character embark on a search for love, and nothing – not even her blindness – will stop her. Producer Liisa Akimof and screenwriters Heikki Kujanpää and Mikko Reitala tell DQ about the “risky business” of marrying comedy and disability.
Though its title might suggest otherwise, Finnish comedy-drama Blind Donna is not just about a woman who has lost her sight. Instead, Donna’s blindness is very much a side story to the main focus of the 10-part series – her search for love.
The story opens with Donna, played by sighted actor Alina Tomnikov (wearing contact lenses), on the morning after a party she hosted with her husband. When she discovers certain objects are missing around their house, she realises he has left her. Refusing to be overcome with sadness, she decides to find the man of her dreams. Meanwhile, her best friend Mira (Essi Hellen) does everything she can to help, but usually only succeeds in ruining everything.
“The series is not about being blind. It’s about looking for love,” explains Mikko Reitala, who wrote the series with director Heikki Kujanpää. “In our first episode, Donna is living together with her partner but he suddenly leaves and Donna is left alone in her house for the first time blind – she wasn’t born blind. But despite all her problems and her grief, she wants to find a new man. Even if she has to live in darkness, she doesn’t give up.”
One early scene involves Donna attempting to ward off two Good Samaritans as they try to help her across a busy road, while we also see her in nightclubs and on dates as she pursues the perfect man.
“Actually, her main flaw is not blindness but that she’s too over-confident,” Reitala says, noting the lead character’s determination to be independent, despite the scrapes and embarrassing situations in which she finds herself.
Kujanpää adds: “Her blindness is symbolic, of course, but it also has lots of possibilities for comedy. It’s a risky business but we’re not laughing at her.”
The writers spent five years developing the series, produced by Production House for Finland’s YLE and Norway’s NRK, before its debut in January this year. Having known each other for more than 30 years since they both studied as actors, Reitala and Kujanpää brainstormed the story and pieced together the outline before producer Liisa Akimof joined the project four years ago when a first draft was already in place.
“In Nordic countries and Europe, we have a peaceful democracy for the most part and gender equality,” Kujanpää notes. “That’s potent for comedy writers because young girls [Donna in this case] can do whatever they like, and that’s good. They can go to a bar looking for sex. But then we had to raise the stakes – she’s blind.”
The series was originally planned as 12 half-hour episodes, later reduced to 10. To get a sense of how to film it, the team produced a 12-minute pilot in summer 2016 to determine what viewers should see when they watch the drama from Donna’s perspective – should it be a black screen, or something else?
“We didn’t want people to feel pity for her – this is not a social drama,” Akimof says. “So we also tested the aesthetic of the show to make it a little bit easier to watch so the audience can feel the romantic comedy.”
Using Donna’s perspective was one way director Kujanpää sought to inject humour into series. “People are used to the point-of-view technique, so when you do it with a blind person, there’s some irony in it,” he notes. “It’s funny.”
One of the ways the show reminds the audience of Donna’s blindness is by literally keeping viewers in the dark at the start of each episode, opening to a black screen with only audio to tell them what’s going on.
Filming for the series took place in Helsinki, where the production team secured the use of a large house that they rented for the duration of the five-month shoot, which also doubled as a production base. “Then we just searched for certain locations we needed in the series, but basically we were in this old house with different rooms and a beautiful garden,” says Akimof. “It was perfect.”
The creators of the €1.4million (US$1.65m) series, which was also backed by the Finnish Film Foundation, now hope Blind Donna will travel internationally, either in its original form or as a format. The series was screened in February at the Berlin International Film Festival and is distributed by YLE.
“We really believe our concept is understood everywhere. It’s universal,” Kujanpää concludes. “This kind of comedy takes corny elements of the romantic comedy genre but we make it this way mainly because of our main character. That’s what comedy has to do to be good – it has to be full of embarrassment.”
European pay TV broadcaster Sky has been investing in original scripted content for a few years now, but the last 12 months have undoubtedly seen the company increase its ambition in German-speaking territories. This week, for example, it announced an order for eight-episode drama Eight Days.
Directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky (The Counterfeiters), the limited series focuses on the reaction to the news that an asteroid is hurtling toward Earth and is predicted to crash somewhere in Europe in eight days’ time. It follows a German family as they live through what they expect will be the last eight days of humanity.
Asteroids are a well-worn theme in the movies but Frank Jastfelder, director of drama production at Sky Deutschland, said this project was different: “We were excited about Eight Days because everyone asked themselves the same question: How would I react in such a situation? In response to this question, Eight Days delivers emotional, always surprising and highly dramatic answers – and steers clear of all the Hollywood clichés.”
Eight Days will begin production midway through next year, by which time Sky Deutschland will have aired another of its big drama investments, Babylon Berlin. Directed by Tom Tykwer, Hendrik Handloegten and Achim von Borries, this US$45m show is a coproduction between Sky Deutschland, ARD Degeto, X Filme and Beta Film. It follows Gereon Rath, a police inspector in 1929 Berlin, a hotbed of politics, art, extremism and drugs.
Two seasons (16 episodes in total) of Babylon Berlin have been set up so far, though there is potential for the franchise to run and run because it is based on a popular book series by Volker Kutscher. So far, Kutscher has written six Gereon Rath books but only the first forms the basis of the first two seasons of Babylon Berlin.
Another ambitious project in the works is Das Boot, a €25m (US$26m) coproduction between Sky Deutschland and German producer Bavaria Film adapted from Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s classic 1973 novel of the same name. Based on the wartime experiences of a German U-boat crew, this series will air in 2018 across all the Sky territories: Germany, Austria, the UK, Ireland and Italy.
Sky Deutschland’s investment in new drama is also being backed by the acquisition of international titles. Earlier in December, the company acquired all five seasons of FremantleMedia International’s hit prison drama Wentworth. The deal marks the first time Wentworth will be available to German-speaking viewers. Season one premiered on Sky Deutschland’s recently launched flagship channel Sky1 on December 7.
Elsewhere in the world of European TV drama, YLE Finland and Mediapro of Spain are joining forces to make a Nordic noir drama called The Paradise. The project is the first time that a Spanish production company has collaborated with a Finnish channel.
The Paradise is a thriller set among the Finnish community living on the Costa del Sol. Their peaceful existence is interrupted by a series of crimes that can only be solved by a joint collaboration between the Finnish and Spanish police forces.
The show is being developed by YLE head of drama Jarmo Lampela and Bordertown writer Matti Laine alongside Mediapro’s Ran Tellem and David Troncoso. Although it is the first Finnish/Spanish collaboration, it is part of a much broader trend towards Nordic partnerships with other European countries. The trend was really kicked off by German broadcasters, the first to spot the international appeal of Nordic drama. The Brits then got interested, first in Wallander and more recently Marcella.
A key breakthrough came last year when France TV came on board Icelandic thriller Trapped. Further French backing for Nordic drama has been evident in the cases of Midnight Sun and Bordertown, a YLE crime series coproduced with Federation Entertainment. That show was a hit on YLE1, with a record 1.1 million viewers and a renewal. That bodes well for The Paradise.
Also this week, The Mark Gordon Company and its parent company Entertainment One (eOne) have joined forces with Xavier Marchand’s newly established UK-based production outfit Moonriver Content.
Under the Moonriver banner, Marchand will acquire, develop and produce film and TV projects with a focus on UK and European stories and talent. The move is expected to increase the volume of UK and European projects coming to Mark Gordon and eOne for financing, coproducing and distributing.
Marchand said: “In partnership with Mark Gordon and his superb team, and with the backing of eOne, I look forward to building on existing relationships and fostering new ones in film and TV.”
On the distribution front, Eccho Rights has revealed that two new broadcasters have picked up hit Turkish drama Elif, which airs on Kanal 7 in its home market. Bangladeshi network Deepto TV and Georgian broadcaster Imedi TV take total sales for the show 16 territories including Chile, where it recently debuted on TVN. Produced by Green Yapim, the show’s third season aired in September – with a total run of 250 45-minute episodes.
Also this week, SVoD service Hulu picked up the US rights to UK drama National Treasure from All3Media International. Written by Jack Thorne, National Treasure follows a popular comedian, played by Robbie Coltrane, whose life is turned upside down when he is charged with sexual assaults alleged to have taken place 20 years ago. The four-parter first aired on Channel 4 in the UK and will debut as a Hulu original series on March 1 next year.
Finally, there are exciting reports for fans of cult CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother. According to Deadline, a spin-off entitled How I Met Your Father is now in the works with This Is Us co-executive producers Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger in charge. HIMYM ran for nine seasons between 2005 and 2014 racking up 208 episodes. The final episode included a controversial twist ending that didn’t go down well with a lot of fans. But it still attracted an audience of more than 13 million.
Nordic drama has made its mark on the international stage over the last few years. But what’s coming next? A good source of information is the Nordisk Film & TV Fund, which provides regular updates on shows in development, production and distribution. So this week we look at some of the latest developments from the region.
Next Summer: Bob Film is remaking Norwegian comedy Next Summer for Kanal5/Discovery in Sweden. The original version aired on TVNorge/Discovery and was one of the country’s most popular local TV dramas. The Swedish remake, which will air in 2017, centres on a man who shares a summer house with his wife and in-laws in Stockholm’s archipelago. Bob Film also remade the Finnish drama Nurses for TV4 Sweden. That show, known locally as Syrror, launched on October 19, attracting an audience of one million. It’s part of wider trend of local Nordic adaptations that also includes Gåsmamman and Black Widows. Bob Film is also working with Sweetwater on a crime drama called Missing (Saknad) for CMore and TV4, which focuses on the investigation into the murder of a young girl in a Swedish Bible-belt town.
Bonusfamiljen (The Bonus Family): Nordisk Film & TV Fond has just allocated a total of NOK9.4m (US$1.14m) to a slate of new film and TV projects. One of them is season two of The Bonus Family, a comedy drama about a recomposed family and the complications that go with it. Season one is due to air on SVT in 2017, as well as on NRK, YLE, RUV and DR. Season two, granted NOK2.4m (US$290,000), started filming in September and will continue until February 2017.
Downshifters: This Finnish series has just secured a French sales rep (ACE Entertainment) while Sweden’s Anagram has optioned remake rights for its own market. The 10-part comedy from Yellow Film & TV has been generating a good buzz since it launched on OTT service Elisa in late 2015. More recently, it aired on YLE2 and established itself as the second most watched programme. The series tells the story of a couple who face financial problems and are forced to cut down on their extravagant lifestyle. A second series, Upshifters, will launch on Elisa in December 2016.
The Rain: News of this Danish show has been doing the rounds in the last couple of weeks. Produced by Miso Film (Dicte, 1864, Acquitted), The Rain is a dystopian drama commissioned by Netflix. The series is set in Copenhagen 10 years after a biological catastrophe that wipes out most of the population in Scandinavia and sees two young siblings embark on a search for safety. Guided only by their father’s notebook about the virus and the hazards of this new world, they start a dangerous journey through the country and join up with a group of other young survivors. Miso has had a busy few months, with the second season of Acquitted recently launching on TV2 in Norway.
Midnight Sun: This Swedish/French crime show recently debuted to 1.39 million viewers (38.1% share) on SVT1 in the Sunday 21.00 slot. According to the channel, this performance is comparable with The Bridge (Bron/Broen). Midnight Sun also trended at number two on Twitter – and online viewers, which are still to be added to the count, could pass 200,000. The show also secured strong reviews in the Swedish media, with five stars out of five in Aftonbladet. Elsewhere in Scandinavia, Midnight Sun will premiere on RUV on December 5. DR, NRK and MTV3 are likely to air the show, which is distributed internationally by StudioCanal, in early 2017.
Nobel: Trapped and Nobel were among 26 European fiction TV series selected for the Prix Europa Media awards last month. Trapped, an Icelandic crime show, won Best European TV Series while Nobel, a Norwegian political/war drama, won Best European TV Movie/Miniseries. Nobel was described as “a precisely crafted original script, perfectly executed and directed, that takes the viewer on a journey into a world of lies, betrayal, mistrust and political games.” Produced by Monster Scripted for NRK, Nobel secured 800,000 viewers for its first episode across NRK1 and NRK streaming service NRK.TV. Both Trapped and Nobel were supported by Nordisk Film & TV Fond. Nobel was directed by Per Olav Sørensen, who also directed The Heavy Water War.
Heartless: In a recent interview with The Nordisk Film & TV Fond, SVoD service Walter Presents’ curator Walter Iuzzolino said 25-30% of the platform’s shows are from Scandinavia. In terms of titles doing well, he mentioned Heartless: “Our curated programme goes way beyond the tradition of Nordic Noir that has been established by the BBC. I would say that 30% of our audience is 16 to 34, the rest 35-plus. The sexy Danish vampire series Heartless, for example, was a huge hit among 16-24s. Normally I hate fantasy and sci-fi but it’s elegant, poetic, cleverly done and an interesting portrayal of a family – a sort of vampire version of The Legacy. It was a huge success, pushed only by word of mouth.”
Watchdog: At last month’s Mipcom market in Cannes, ZDF Enterprises announced an exclusive first-look rights deal for all scripted content from the Finnish producer Fisher King. Matti Halonen, Fisher King MD and producer, said: “ZDF Enterprises is a well-established company that can give a lot of support to a smaller player like Fisher King.” The first joint project that ZDFE is working on is the upcoming political thriller series Watchdog. Set in present-day Helsinki, The Hague and London, it’s described as an adrenaline trip into the heart of European justice policy and security regulations concerning source protection and privacy insurance. Fisher King is also behind Bordertown, which is represented worldwide by Federation Entertainment and has been sold to Sky Deutschland and CanalPlay France, while English-language series Crypted is also in its pipeline.
Deadwind: Paris-based financing and distribution boutique About Premium Content (APC) recently picked up Finnish crime drama Deadwind. The 12-part series is about a detective in her 30s who is trying to get over her husband’s death when she discovers the body of a young woman on a construction site. At Mipcom, APC launched Norwegian drama thriller Valkyrien, which is produced by Tordenfilm for NRK. It also distributes another Norwegian show, the youth-oriented Young & Promising, which was recently sold to the UK, Germany and France and has a US deal is in negotiation.
Dan Sommerdahl: This autumn it was announced that Nikolaj Scherfig (The Bridge) would be co-creator/head-writer on Dan Sommerdahl, a new series based on Danish author Anna Grue’s bestselling book series. Distributor Dynamic Television (Trapped) is pre-selling the series on behalf of Germany’s NDF and Denmark’s Nordisk Film. TV2 Denmark is attached and a German broadcaster will soon be announced. Scherfig said the project is different from classic Scandi noir: “It is a tight, clean crime series reflecting on life outside cities understanding how modernity and social development affect life in the province.” Klaus Zimmermann, Dynamic co-MD, told nordicfilmandtvnews.com: “NDF originally acquired the rights to the books and wanted to make it in the tradition of a German crime series with German actors for an international market. But then we felt it made more sense to make it as an original Danish show with a Danish writer and Danish actors. It’s simply the right way to tell the story.”
Hassel: Speaking to the Nordisk Film & TV Fond about Viaplay’s strategy for coproducing original content for the Nordic region, CEO Jonas Karlén said upcoming original Nordic scripted series on Viaplay include Swedish Dicks, Svartsjön/Black Lake, Hassel, Our Time Is Now and Occupied season two. Hassel is a Nordic noir starring Ola Rapace as the iconic detective created by author Olov Svedelid. The show is produced by Nice Drama in coproduction with Beta Film, which handles global sales, and is due to launch in late 2017.
Spring Tide: Eight brand new Nordic TV dramas have been selected for The Lübeck Festival’s Nordic Film Days. “TV drama is the big new thing. It was time for us to open up our festival to TV series, as Germans are so fond of Nordic noir,” said the festival’s long-time artistic director Linde Fröhlich. Shows to be introduced include Splitting Up Together (DK), Living with my Ex (FI), Trapped (IS), Nobel (NO), and Modus, Hashtag and Spring Tide (SE). The latter crime drama, based on the novel by Rolf and Cilla Börjlind, is about two cops who come together to solve the murder of a pregnant woman. The show is distributed internationally by Endemol Shine International.
Below the Surface: This is a new drama based on an idea by Adam Price (Borgen) and Søren Sveistrup (The Killing) – now principals in Studiocanal-backed firm SAM. The thriller series centres on an operation to rescue 15 hostages from a Copenhagen subway train. Price and Sveistrup said: “There is something both eerie and fascinating about [taking hostages] as a criminal act. The close and complex relationship between the hostage and hostage-taker immediately opens up strong character-development possibilities and can also put a number of highly topical issues about our time to the forefront, such as fear of terrorism.“ The eight-part series has received DKK14m (US$2.08m) in production support from the DFI’s Public Service Fund and will air on Kanal5/Discovery Networks.
Skam: Cult Norwegian youth series Shame (Skam) launched on NRK and was recently acquired by DR3 for Denmark. Danish newspaper Politiken called it “a youth series about high-school life that makes Norway cool for the first time.” Steffen Raastrup, director of DR3, said: “The series’ premise is that when you’re young, you should not be ashamed of who you are but stand up for yourself and deal with the fear that many feel during their formative teen years.” Skam – which is now up to three seasons in Norway and is a strong performer on social media – has also been acquired by SVT in Sweden and RUV in Iceland.
Interference: This is an eight-part English- and French-language sci-fi thriller in development by Stockholm-based Palladium Fiction. Palladium, which is minority-controlled by Sony Pictures Television (SPT), is producing the show alongside Atlantique Productions. SPT is distributing the show internationally. The Palladium team was also behind the critically acclaimed drama Jordskott, and is now working on a second season of the show. Palladium is also developing an English-language project with UK writer/producer Nicola Larder.
Established in 1990 and based in Oslo, the Nordisk Film & TV Fond’s primary purpose is to promote film and TV productions of high quality in the five Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden). It is funded by 17 partners: The Nordic Council of Ministers, five national film institutes/funds and 11 public service and private TV stations within the region. Its annual budget is approximately NOK100m.
A new crime drama set on the border of Finland and Russia has ambitions to show the lighter side of Nordic Noir.
If you think of a television show that comes with the Nordic Noir label, it’s likely that series originally hails from Denmark or Sweden. The Killing, The Bridge, Jordskott and Wallander have each helped to build the global interest in Scandinavian drama. But Norway and Iceland have now also joined in, with Occupied and Trapped respectively – and now Finland is getting into the game.
Bordertown, known locally as Sorjonen, is a crime drama set in the town of Lappeenranta, close to the Finnish border with Russia.
It centres on chief investigator Kari Sorjonen (played by Ville Virtanen) who moves with his wife and teenage daughter to the small town to enjoy a more peaceful life. Their new life is far from idyllic, however, as the new police chief has to use his detective skills to investigate several murder cases and track down the serial killer who is tormenting the community – and he soon discovers the crimes are not only connected to each other but to his family as well.
The 11-part series, due to air on Finnish broadcaster YLE in October, is produced by Fisher King Production and Federation Entertainment, with the latter distributing worldwide.
But while the standard-bearers of Nordic Noir mean the genre will always be associated with gritty landscapes and often brutal murders, Bordertown aims to bring out its lighter side, despite the serial killer plotline.
Fisher King producer Matti Halonen explains: “Very often Nordic Noir only tells the dark side of the story. We wanted to combine a warm family drama with a story that you want to follow through the season, combined with five different crimes that show the Nordic Noir elements.
“It’s important for us and YLE to have family at the centre of the story. Also, the fact the whole story is set on the border with Russia is not because we want to or do see them as a threat, which is normally used in a drama. In Bordertown, almost all the crimes come from the Finnish side.”
Halonen says Lappeenranta was a natural location for the story to be set, owing to the vast numbers of tourists and visitors that come from Russia across Finland’s eastern border.
“It felt for us that when we started to create the show, it was a natural place for it to be set,” he continues. “It’s the border of the Western world and Europe with Russia and the East – two different cultures, two different economies. It’s full of drama!”
Viewers always expect Russian characters to be the bad guys, notes Lionel Uzan, MD and co-founder of Federation. “But what we really loved when we read the scripts is everything has been turned around,” he says. “The bad guys are not who you think they are, the main character is not your typical crime noir character. So in the end you have a typical crime series from Scandinavia but with elements that are truly original.
“The risk when you have such a strong genre is to do the same thing over and over again. I’m sure some series are like that – just a redo from the previous killing. I don’t think that’s what Finland is bringing now.”
It’s those recognisable Nordic Noir clichés that Uzan says are potential pitfalls for any new series coming out of the region. How can they take the best from the genre and avoid treading on the toes of shows that have come before them?
“How do you reinvent or make it different? What Bordertown brings is family and crime, really mixed together. You haven’t seen that before, even in the great Scandi series.
“If you talk about the main characters of The Killing and other series like that, they’re very depressed, very dark. It always ends badly. Here, it’s not the same. The sergeant is totally original. He’s an offbeat character in the way he reacts with people and the way he acts with his family. He’s warm and very close to his family. It’s not a tough relationship that you’ve seen in lots of Scandi crime series.”
With five murders spanning the entire first season of the show, Uzan explains that the serialised story arc focusing on the family is complemented by the procedural, closed-ended police elements – a combination he says is attractive to both free TV and pay TV broadcasters that are interested in bringing Bordertown to audiences around the world.
“Even though it’s still violent, it’s got a wider approach,” he says. “It’s the family aspect that broadens its appeal. It’s almost as if different buyers can get different things out of the same show, which you don’t see very often. Very often you can say, ‘this is a pay TV show, this is a free TV show.’ Bordertown really works for both.”
The series was shot across 100 days, often employing two units at the same time to split the filming time in half depending on actors’ availability.
Discussing the look of the show, Halonen says writer/director Miikko Oikkonen wanted to create a TV series fit for the big screen. “We wanted it to have a cinematic look, which is much easier nowadays,” he explains. “We not only wanted a cinematic vision but exciting camera movements to support the drama. The cameras bring more to the drama, rather than take the audience away from it.”
Uzan adds: “You don’t often hear about composition of the image when you speak to series producers and creators. It’s usually narrative, narrative, narrative. But when you can also think about the composition, it’s the best of both worlds between movies and series. That’s something quite important, which helps you to be original and different. It’s production value that doesn’t cost a lot. When you think like a feature-film director, you can make something looks great without needing explosions and special effects. It’s about having a visual mind.”
With a second season already in development, viewers can look forward to revisiting Bordertown in 2017. Meanwhile, Fisher King and Federation will continue to work together to develop drama series for international audiences.
“The audience right now is so sophisticated, they can feel if a series is authentic or not,” Uzan adds. “You cannot make a Europudding – if you do that, you’re dead. What we find interesting is that, more and more, language barriers are slowly diminishing. Wherever the project comes from and whatever the language, you have interest.
“I come from features where if you’re not in English, you’re art house, no matter what you do. That’s it. That’s the rule. But what’s interesting now in series is these barriers don’t exist anymore. Thanks to the platforms and catch-up services, so many people now have so much access to content that the audience gets more sophisticated. It’s almost a way to discover a new culture. It’s a virtuous circle where the more content is accessible to more people, the more they become sophisticated and the more they demand original content. That’s very interesting.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
As the popularity of Nordic noir shows no sign of waning, DQ asks Scandinavian drama’s key players where they plan to take the genre next.
Ever since the massive global hit that was The Killing, Scandinavian drama has been punching above its weight, winning over critics and viewers internationally as well as influencing its European neighbours.
The latest Nordic noir success story is Sweden’s The Fat and the Angry (Ettor och nollor), which scooped another international award for the region when it picked up best non-English-language drama at the inaugural C21 Drama Awards last November. It came a close second earlier in the year at the Seoul Drama Awards with a Silver Bird gong in the TV movies category.
Based on true events in Gothenburg’s criminal underworld, the two-part show, which premiered locally in Sweden in February 2014, joins a long list of award-winning Nordic dramas with international careers, including Lilyhammer, The Killing, Wallander, Borgen and The Bridge – as well as Mammon, which has been the subject of speculation about a BBC remake.
The Fat and the Angry highlights an important feature of Scandinavian dramas: coproduction. Made by Göta Film and Swedish pubcaster SVT, its partners included Finnish pubcaster YLE and Swedish film prodco Film i Väst.
With a few exceptions, Scandinavian drama’s international partnerships came out of necessity, says SVT head of drama Christian Wikander. “The hourly cost for drama has gone up, which means we’re all searching for new money, and this drove the producers and the broadcasters to reach out and broaden the network.”
If anyone can find success with this approach, it’s the Scandinavians, as Liselott Forsman, executive producer of international drama projects at YLE, explains: “We’ve been coproducing since 1959. It’s really good for Nordic drama that we have subsidy methods and two important funds within the Nordic countries.” One of these is the Nordisk Film and TV Fond, where Forsman sits on the board.
“There’s much to be gained by having a lot of smaller funding and regional funding contributions, even though they don’t pay very much,” agrees Stefan Baron, executive drama producer at Nice Drama. Baron left SVT in 2014 after 21 years to join MTG-owned Nice Entertainment Group, where he’s now an exec producer heading up international coproductions. “The trick is to not have too many partners at the script stage,” he says. “When you have a couple of scripts, then you bring in distributors and coproducers from around the world.”
Beyond the region, Nordic drama’s international appeal has grown thanks to increasingly sophisticated, social media-savvy audiences and their expanding tastes, says Wikander – adding that this has also helped prise open the door to the UK, a notoriously closed market for subtitled, non-Anglo Saxon fare.
“I think audiences are very well educated and used to all kinds of storylines, plots, dramaturgy and also language,” says the SVT man. “Because social media is so borderless, we share so much in our personal networks – and one proof of that is the success of Nordic drama on BBC4. Ten years ago, if someone had told me two million Brits would sit down to watch a subtitled drama, I wouldn’t have believed them.
“The fantastic upside for all of us working in Scandinavia today is that we’re approached by broadcasters and international producers in a way we’ve never seen before, and that’s a great opportunity for us.”
SVT is Scandinavia’s largest drama commissioner and producer, with an annual output of four longform drama series (10×60’/10×45’) and four miniseries (3×60’) across crime, family drama and comedy, on a budget of around SEK320m (US$46.6m).
Around half its output is coproduced, largely with its longstanding Nordic partners such as DR, NRK and YLE. But it has also attracted a growing band of Europeans and North Americans interested in remake rights to shows like The Bridge, and ‘hubot’ drama Real Humans, with Shine-owned Kudos’s remake of the latter, simply called Humans, now airing on the UK’s Channel 4 and AMC in the US.
Piodor Gustaffson, co-founder and producer of independent production company Another Park Film, and former drama commissioning editor at SVT, says that despite smaller budgets and limited development funds in the region, he’s noticed an overall increase in the quality of drama series over the last few years. “That’s about competing with not only the rest of the world but also your neighbours, as well as occasionally using the same talent,” he says.
At SVT, Gustaffson pushed for a broader range of drama output, leading to projects such as The Bridge and Real Humans. Meanwhile, Baron greenlit Nice’s family drama Thicker Than Water. The show aired in spring 2014 to a million-plus viewers, selling internationally via Germany’s ZDFE. A second season is now in the pipeline.
There’s widespread agreement that Nordic noir has opened doors for Scandinavian producers, themselves refusing to have their output pigeonholed as simply Nordic noir. With crime at its core, the programming stretches far beyond into an exploration of society and human motivations, offering a strong identification with and empathy for characters along the way. It also embraces other genres such as suspense and mystery, and fish-out-of-water crime comedy. And now producers are moving into new areas, exemplified by DR’s family inheritance drama The Legacy.
“Of course it’s about crime – it’s Nordic noir – but it’s always been character-focused,” says Jonas Allen, producer and co-founder of Danish prodco Miso Film. “We care about the characters. It’s not only about fascination with them, but also identifying with the characters, and I think that’s the basic core to all the shows.”
Now majority-owned by FremantleMedia, Miso Film counts local hits such as Those Who Kill and Dicte for TV2 Denmark, as well as the historical drama 1864 for DR, among its productions. Crime reporter series Dicte (10×45’) returned for a successful second run last autumn, with a third season now in development. It includes TV4 Sweden and TV2 Norway as coproducers, and received support from regional Danish regional funds, the EU’s MEDIA programme and DFI’s Public Service Fund.
For Scandinavia’s public broadcasters, at least, another quintessential ingredient of Nordic drama is how it reflects society. “It’s our duty to tell all our audiences something about what’s happening in society today. It’s imperative that we entertain, but we should always enrich at a deeper level, too,” says Forsman.
Even though Nordic drama appears gloomy and dark, Forsman says one of the reasons Danish drama travels so well is that the characters care about each other. “You can feel it within 10 seconds of watching. You have to have a lot of empathy, no matter how harsh the subject.”
YLE Drama’s latest show is the thriller Tellus, scripted and directed by JP Siili. The 6×50’ drama deals with a group of eco-terrorists, exploring an “important ethical question” of how far individuals will go to fight for their ideals, according to Forsman.
NRK and SVT are coproducers and ZDFE is distributing it internationally outside of Scandinavia, making it “a typical Nordic coproduction,” Forsman adds. The drama opened to 27% shares on YLE1 in the autumn, continuing on 25%, with a second season greenlit before the final episode aired in December.
Pubcaster NRK’s latest traditional Nordic noir, Eyewitness (Øyenvitne, pictured top), which debuted on NRK1 last autumn, is also imbued with socio-cultural commentary. “It’s been a real success among critics and audiences,” says NRK head of drama Ivar Køhn, who’s also the current chair of the Nordisk Film and TV Fund.
It was scripted and directed by Jarl Emsell Larsen who, as the original father of Nordic noir in Norway, has 30 years of TV drama under his belt. “For the last 15 years he’s been really into social drama, when he discovered he could make crime and talk about society and also make it popular,” Køhn says of the director.
Eyewitness follows two adolescent boys who meet secretly in a forest, where they witness a violent murder. The story follows the events that build after they fail to report the crime to the police. It has already sold internationally in both finished (including to Germany) and scripted format forms.
But NRK is also keen to evolve its drama. Its ‘Nordic humour noir’ show Struggle for Life (Kampen for tilværelsen) “is not so much a ‘fish out of water’ story as a ‘tigers in silent waters’ one – the complete opposite,” says Køhn.
Following in the mould of series like Welcome to Sweden and Lilyhammer, Struggle for Life centres on a Pole who travels to Norway in search of his father. Although a linguist, he can only find work as a carpenter, which exposes him to a Norwegian middle-class life of self-made problems.
“It’s a really original story and a brave one for us,” says Køhn. The project was completely controlled by scriptwriters, and co-written by Erlend Loe, Per Schreiner and Bjørn Olaf Johannessen – “some of the most exciting writers we have in Norway,” says Køhn. NRK has greenlit two seasons of the eight-part comedy drama.
Miso Film is also evolving the Nordic noir genre. “It’s one of the things going on right now,” says co-founder Allen. “A lot of creatives who we’re dealing with are looking for and trying to tell new stories.”
One of its latest offerings is NOK65m (US$8.8m)-budget mystery drama Acquitted (Frikjent) (10×45’), made for TV2 Norway and launched in March this year. The project, which received NOK10m funding from the Nordisk Film and TV Fund, became TV2’s biggest drama premiere, pulling in a 46.6% share of its 20-49s target group and a 38.8% overall share (12 years-plus).
Scripted by two female writers, Siv Rajendram Eliassen (Varg Veum) and Anna Bache-Wiig, the drama is inspired by a real rape and murder case in Norway. “They were very interested in the character, and it was always about finding out about the man who was acquitted, why he came back to his hometown, what he was looking for, and the forces that drove him back. That’s the core of the development of the show,” says Allen.
SVT’s Wikander, too, is keen for producers not to come to him with the next The Bridge. “I think we need to be brave. Take Real Humans, for instance – that’s an example of being brave, and for a public broadcaster today that’s extremely important,” he says.
“We need to try out new stuff but, of course, without abandoning the established crime formats. We’re going to see a third and probably fourth season of The Bridge, but we need to balance that with bravery, and we’ve started a lot from scratch, finding stories relevant to a Swedish audience because that’s our mission. When you have that mission, you can then go into the international market, but not as a first step.”
One of SVT’s newest dramas, Jordskott (10×60’), takes the pubcaster in yet another new direction. It’s made by established Swedish commercials prodco Palladium, which formed new division Palladium Fiction, headed by producer Filip Hammarström, for its first TV drama. The show, which launched on Monday February 16, opened to 1.6 million viewers and has since averaged 1.4 million so far across its debut run.
The story follows a detective who returns to her small home town to work on the case of a missing boy, 10 years after her own daughter disappeared, and tries to find links between the two mysterious incidents. Wikander calls it a “Nordic crime meets mystery” drama.
After four years developing the idea, Palladium brought a 10-minute tape to SVT. “If they hadn’t had that 10 minutes, we would have said no, because the company had never produced a drama series before,” says Wikander.
The UK’s ITV Studios came in on the project very early, he adds, making it possible to take it to the next level of production, and is distributing the series worldwide. Finland’s Kinoproduktion is also a coproducer and the series has been pre-bought by YLE, TV2 Norway and Iceland’s RUV.
“The biggest difference of the last two to three years has been an increase in the amount spent on development, alongside international companies investing in or acquiring Nordic companies and increased budgets at the TV channels. More projects are now very well developed even before they reach the commissioning editors,” notes Another Park’s Gustaffson.
SVT has upped its development budget to help develop more new projects, a challenge many countries without the US-style showrunner/writers room approach face. “The best writers are occupied so we also need to focus also on the writers beneath them and on finding ways to get them together with producers to lift them,” Wikander explains.
Another Park is currently busy developing a number of (as yet undisclosed) film and TV projects across a range of genres, working with top writing talent. “We will go out to the market when we’re ready,” Gustaffson says. “We wanted to have that freedom when we created the company. But, obviously, we would also be open to start earlier with some partners if we shared the same vision at the development stage.”
However, Gustaffson says a key challenge for Nordic drama is the “limit to how much Swedish-language drama the local market can finance and consume.”
He adds: “There’s a bigger appetite for Nordic and Swedish drama than what TV stations commission, and that’s caused a bottleneck. A lot of interesting projects will come out of the increase in development money but this won’t result in more Swedish-language drama series – and it could mean some of the top talent start to write for companies in other countries because what they develop here won’t be financed.”
Yet Scandinavian producers remain unfazed by growing international competition in foreign-language drama from countries such as France, Spain, Israel and Turkey. Rather, they see greater potential synergies developing.
NRK is no stranger to global partnerships. It was the first Scandinavian broadcaster to strike out when it joined forces with new entrant Netflix to coproduce the crime comedy series Lilyhammer by Rubicon TV, which premiered in early 2012. Season three of the drama returned on flagship NRK1 last October, with the broadcaster this time taking a leaf out of Netflix’s book by also making the entire series available straight away on its online streaming service. Meanwhile, HBO Europe picked up remake rights to NRK’s six-part thriller Mammon.
“We were all taken and shaken by Netflix and House of Cards, when the whole series was made available on day one, while Netflix rose extremely quickly to around 650,000 subscribers in Sweden,” says Wikander. “But that has now levelled out, and one of the reasons for that – not unique to Netflix – is that 98% of its catalogue is old titles. The audience has now gone through it, and an output of four new titles a year, whether you’re a broadcaster like us or a Netflix, is too little to keep a subscriber audience with you.”
There’s another reason why distribution platforms like Netflix and HBO make interesting bedfellows: they can do niche drama, because ultimately they can aggregate lots of smaller audiences, says YLE’s Forsman. “In other countries where we have really strong public service companies with good audience shares and very well-educated audiences, we can do that too,” she notes.
“It’s really great to see channels like France’s Canal+ doing the same,” adds Forsman. “They want their drama to have deep characters and to speak about society in a new way, to be brave, risky and so on – all imperatives for public service broadcasters. We could have written the same words, yet they’re a commercial broadcaster.”