Building The Fortress

Building The Fortress

By Michael Pickard
August 22, 2023


In a dystopian future, Norway has become self-sufficient after building huge walls along its borders – but what happens when a deadly virus breaks out? Writer John Kåre Raake and co-director Cecilie Mosli welcome DQ to The Fortress.

Living in the wake of a global pandemic, the concept of self-isolation is all too familiar. But what would happen if an entire country decided to close itself off from the rest of the world?

Norwegian drama Festning Norge (The Fortress) begins amid a “deadly crisis” in a near-future world, where political, social and environmental actions have left people around the globe fearing for their lives. It is for these reasons that Norway’s prime minister Grieg Amund Heyerdahl justifies building a huge wall around the entire country, claiming it is right for Norway to go its own way from the rest of the world and become self-sufficient, providing all the energy, food and other resources it needs to become a relative paradise and keep its people safe.

It’s also the reason thousands of refugees soon gather outside the walls, looking for a way in.

Fast-forward nine years and Norwegians are enjoying a prosperous life. But when there is an outbreak of a fatal disease, they find themselves trapped behind the very wall that was built to protect them.

Commissioned by Nordic streamer Viaplay and due to air in 2024, The Fortress began life long before the real-world emergency caused by Covid-19. Its origins can be traced back to 2014, when writer John Kåre Raake (The Quake) was watching TV footage of refugees in boats arriving on tourist beaches in Greece and was startled by the dramatic images.

“You’re thinking, ‘What’s going to happen now? What’s going to happen when people just come to Europe in that way? What are we going to do about it?’ That’s where the idea started, long before the pandemic,” he tells DQ.

In The Fortress, Tobias Santelmann plays the prime minister of a Norway that has shut itself off from the outside world

In The Fortress, Raake imagines the extreme actions a government might take in a global crisis. Little did he know he would be penning the series with co-writer Linn-Jeanethe Kyed (Bø) during a real-life pandemic. Two years earlier, they had also joined the show’s producers from Oslo-based Maipo Film (State of Happiness) for a meeting with the Norwegian health authorities to discuss how a government might handle such an event.

“We’d decided that in this paradise [in the show], something has to happen, so we decided there would be a disease coming from food or something like that,” Raake says. “We had a meeting with [the authorities] and one question we asked was, ‘If you get a disease that is very contagious, how many people would a hospital be able to cope with if they had to be in 100% isolation?’ The answer they gave us was eight.

“I thought, ‘OK, that’s a bit scary.’ Then before leaving, the last question was, ‘How long does it take to make a cure, vaccine or medicine?’ They said, ‘We don’t do that. We closed down production 10 years ago, so it has to be some international company.’ So when the pandemic happened, we had this information and we thought, ‘Oh shit, this could be a problem.’ It was scary.”

Featuring a Norwegian and international cast led by Tobias Santelmann (Exit), Selome Emnetu (Luka & the Magical Theatre) and British star Russell Tovey (Years & Years), the eight-part series weaves numerous storylines together, from the political fallout facing prime minister Heyerdahl (Santelmann) to the uncertainty surrounding those inside and outside Norway.

One key character, Emnetu’s Esther, is responsible for the country’s food, while Tovey’s Charlie is set to join his biologist partner Uma (Nina Yndis) inside the wall, but when a flaw is detected in her immune system, she is denied entry at the last minute.

“That was a lot of work,” Raake says of pulling together the show’s numerous story strands. “In some ways it’s a high-concept idea, but we wanted to see the big and the small. We wanted to show this story through real people, so we spent a lot of time finding the characters we wanted to tell the story through. We had an idea that politics would be important, but we also wanted to show what’s different in this kind of Norway, which looks similar to our Norway.”

British star Russell Tovey also stars in the dystopian drama

Raake started developing the series with Kyed, the pair spending a lot of time on the initial episodes before Kyed left temporarily to spend time with her new baby. Raake then continued writing alone, with support from producers and directors Cecilie Mosli (Mammon) and Mikkel Brænne Sandemose (State of Happiness). “There were lots of meetings so we were going back and forth,” he says. “Then Linn came back and we worked together for some weeks before we started shooting. For me as a writer, the story didn’t change then, but there were a lot of practical things to think about.”

Very early on in the discussions between Mosli and Sandemose, the directors established that they wanted Norway to be shown as a green paradise, where the camerawork would be steady and controlled, in contrast to the chaotic refugee camp outside the walls, where scenes were recorded with handheld cameras to relay a feeling of confusion and panic among the throngs of people living in relative squalor.

“Then eventually you’ll see it merges,” Mosli says of the contrasting styles. “What we wanted to say is this paradise is an illusion because we can’t cut ourselves off from everywhere else and leave all the disasters behind the wall. It’s very important this isn’t a long-lasting way of living on Earth.”

“We always had this thing that we wanted to show Norway as a paradise. That’s why we chose beautiful Bergen as the main location,” Raake notes. Filming also took place in Lithuania, where the refugee camp was recreated and interior sets were constructed in a studio.

“We cheated a lot, so there’s no wall outside Bergen now,” Mosli jokes. But there was a more serious side to production as filming had to contend with not only the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic but also the war in Ukraine, with shooting taking place close to the Lithuanian border with Belarus.

“Of course, to make a show with so many levels of plots and with two directors, that was challenging, but challenges are fun. That’s why we’re filmmakers,” she says. “The pandemic was hard for us, even if we can’t complain compared with people who have hard lives. But it made the job heavier, and so did the war being so close to where we were working.

The show was conceived before the Covid-19 pandemic

“Some of our team members disappeared and went to help people in Ukraine, because Lithuania has a very close friendship with Ukraine. Of course, we blessed them and said, ‘Thank you.’ Story-wise, it’s always a challenge when you have thriller elements and political elements, but you want to have drama and understand everything. We over-explained [the story] a bit and we had to edit it back, and then we had to work out how to follow all these characters and still make sure we gave them heart, which we worked on until the last minute. It was a lot of work.”

Despite facing both creative and practical challenges, the cast and crew fostered a tradition of teamwork that Mosli says is common in Norway, with no single voice in charge of the decision-making.

“We work together. It’s not like there were big writers or directors who decided everything,” she explains. “We do it together, so we were discussing with the production design, we did calls with the producers and the costume designer, Flore Vauville. We developed it together. It was real teamwork.

“We wanted to make [filming] effortless, and to make a futuristic society but not futuristic as in sci-fi. This is a country where we have closed the borders, so we have what we have. You can’t import clothes from China; you can’t import anything, even food. So you have to find other ways. Flore had to learn about Norwegian traditions because it gets a bit more nationalistic when you close the borders, so we had to remake clothes and create a fashion out of the materials we have. There was a lot of ‘what if’ thinking. It was very interesting.”

Raake was also on set for a few days. “It was very cold,” he recalls. “I came in the morning and it was –4°C, and it was very open and it was blowing. That was a big problem. There were a lot of people so it felt like we were in a real camp because it was so big, and we shot a lot during the night.”

Mosli and Sandemose each picked up their own storylines during filming, which meant the different elements of the series naturally developed their own visual style to differentiate them from each other. But the complexity of the production schedule meant they would pick up each other’s scenes depending on the shooting location.

“To have two directors will automatically make something in another language, but we had the same DOP almost all the time,” says Mosli. “It’s good that the storylines have a bit of a different look.”

Even though it has yet to launch, The Fortress is already an award-winning series, claiming the best screenplay award at this year’s Series Mania festival. TrustNordisk is distributing the series internationally. But with the show coming so soon after a real pandemic, was Raake worried people might be turned off by its subject matter?

“I had those conversations with the producers in the middle of the pandemic,” he admits. “I’ve written a lot of disaster movies, and people like them because you don’t experience it yourself. You’re sitting safely at your home or in the cinema – and then suddenly we were in the middle of it. So I was worried nobody would want to watch this. But we still made it.”