Crime, sand, punishment
Svörtu sandar (Black Sands) star Aldís Amah Hamilton, director Baldvin Z and producer Hörður Rúnarsson reveal how this series takes a new approach to crime drama with a story that unfolds against Iceland’s unique scenery.
The iconic black sandy beach at Reynisfjara in Iceland has previously appeared on screen in hit productions including Game of Thrones, Star Trek: Into Darkness and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Now, the astonishing, unique landscape has inspired the name of – and serves as the backdrop for – an “eerie” Icelandic crime story.
But eight-part series Svörtu sandar (Black Sands) isn’t your traditional detective drama. Instead, director Baldvin Z (Trapped, Case) describes it as a “dark, romantic” thriller, with character-driven tension running through the show to elevate it above the central premise.
“It is a crime story that we are doing, but I call it a dark, romantic crime story,” he says. “It’s about a woman who goes back to her old home town and meets all her old friends, her mum and her old boyfriend. But they all get involved in a murder and, slowly, we peel off the layers like an onion and find out everything about her friends and her family. She doesn’t know when she comes back to town that she is on a very dark path into her past, which ends with a really big showdown.”
The series introduces 30-something detective Anita who, after burning her bridges with Iceland capital Reykjavik’s metropolitan police, is forced to leave the city and take up a post in her childhood village, an ugly oasis in the middle of an endless desert of black sand where she must face her abusive mother for the first time in 10 years.
After a tourist found dead on the black beach initially appears to be the victim of an accident, the discovery sends Anita on a dark journey into the past as she uncovers a series of murders. And when a surviving witness from one of the attacks describes the assailant as a female police officer, Anita realises the killer could be closer than she first thought.
“Anita’s not the cop you expect, who has all the answers and is the one everyone looks to,” explains Aldís Amah Hamilton (The Valhalla Murders, Prisoners), who plays the detective. “She’s just your average person going through a lot of difficult stuff, dealing with a lot of things and making decisions that are good and bad. I find that quite appealing, not just as an actor, and I hope viewers will think the same.”
It was Hamilton and police officer Ragnar Jónsson who first came to Z with the idea for the series, which is inspired by true events in Iceland. They then sat down with fellow co-creator Andri Ottarsson and mapped out their plans for the show, which also stars Thor Tulinius (The Valhalla Murders) as police chief Ragnar, Kolbeinn Arnbjornsson (Shadowtown) as town doctor Salomon and Steinunn Ólina (Case) as Anita’s mother Elin.
“I’m not a big fan of crime series but I like complicity and I like family stories and backgrounds,” the director says. “I wanted to go very deep into this family and their story and surround the whole show with very few characters – there are only six or seven characters. That’s something that made me very excited about this project and the setting. This place in Iceland around the black sands is so beautiful. I felt like we had an opportunity to create a unique, very emotional, very dark TV series.
“But first and foremost, this is a romantic story. When we were writing the story, we wanted to stay very close to the crime genre, but we also wanted to do something very fresh and startling. I’ve never done this kind of show before. I’ve been involved in a couple of crime series in Iceland – Trapped and Case – but here we got to create everything from the start together. This is the crime series I wanted to watch on TV.”
As a co-creator of the show, Hamilton’s work on Black Sands has seen her taking part in the writing process behind a series for the first time. As such, she has enjoyed not having to prepare to play the role of Anita, having lived with the character as she was developed over the last two years.
“But what surprised me the most was that I have had such a hard time letting go of the other characters and how I think the story should be, and only focusing on the character as an actor, rather than as a writer,” she says. “As fun as it’s been, it’s also been very difficult, especially when the cast started working on the characters on their own and with Baldvin and I was excluded. That was so difficult for me. Then, meeting them as Anita, it’s been a little crazy.”
Producer Hörður Rúnarsson picks up: “It was very interesting having Aldís in the writers room, influencing the character. It creates a different dynamic to the show and we can definitely sense and feel that. Then you put that together with a perfect cast and Baldvin’s reputation in doing the more emotional stuff on top of the traditional crime genre and it becomes so big in one way but so small and intimate at the same time.”
With previous credits including Case, Stella Blómkvist and Thin Ice, Ottarsson provided the foundations for creating the world of Black Sands in the writers room, while Jónsson brought his real-life experience of working for the police in Iceland.
“Ragnar comes in with a wealth of experience,” says Rúnarsson, who along with Z is one of the owners of series producer Glassriver. “He’s seen every single body in Iceland for the last 20 or 30 years. He comes in with a role in making the show realistic. We wanted to have that feeling, because police work is also kind of mundane in a way. It’s a job for them, just like any other task, so we tried to approach it in that way. Then we presented the project to Channel 2, who instantly came on board. They were on Case as well, so they saw the instant package we brought with the idea, the scripts and the talent.”
All3Media International subsequently came on board as distributor, with the series already pre-sold to Finland’s YLE and Belgium’s VRT, which is also a coproducer on the project.
“It’s been a joy for everyone involved; all the broadcasters, the distributors and everyone have been really, really helpful, and it’s been a joyous ride,” the producer continues. “You are knocking on wood every day, thinking there must be something that’s going to go wrong. But then every day we see new shots and we hear from Baldvin that it was a perfect day. It’s going fantastically.”
Production is continuing on location in Kirkjubæjarklaustur and around Reynisfjara, close to the south Icelandic coastal town of Vik, with a view to the show’s launch on Channel 2 towards the end of this year. Having previously made all his films in Reykjavik, where he has utilised tight shots of characters in gritty surroundings, escaping to the picturesque open spaces away from the capital has allowed Z to take advantage of Iceland’s stunning scenery.
“Everywhere we look, we have something gorgeous,” he says. “Sometimes I feel like I’m doing a shot in Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. We can put in a scene where two cops are just talking about a car they found but there is some beautiful landscape there behind them. But sometimes I think the audience will go, ‘This is green screen, nothing looks like this. They probably have done something in post.’”
Approaching the series through character, Z made an early decision to start the show traditionally, with wide shots that capture the surrounding landscapes. Then once viewers are more familiar with the protagonists and push further into the story, the camerawork changes to use more handheld shots and close-ups when “we are into the swirling wind and everything is going insane,” he says.
“This is not a whodunit. This is, ‘Why did you do it?’ That is really exciting and that is one of the fresh approaches we have taken, so you will get to know the bad guy about halfway through. Maybe I shouldn’t have said that!”
“That is definitely one of the appealing things about the series, so the audience takes a different perspective and an active role,” notes Rúnarsson. “At some point, they will know more than the people in the show, or at least some of them, which is thrilling. It shifts from a more traditional crime drama to a thriller type. The style of the filming will also change and adapt with that.”
Z adds: “At the same time, it’s very important to me that these characters are relatable. We have police officers we can relate to because they’re just human beings. There is nobody putting their sunglasses down and saying cool words. They are just very normal people working in this situation, trying to deal with their own faults and personal lives.”
With the support of Jónsson’s knowledge and experience in the writers room, Hamilton believes Black Sands shows policing in a very honest light, which she hopes will spark empathy among viewers for the difficult work they must complete every day.
“They’re still normal people,” she says. “These are your average people that need to go back home and deal with their daily life and all of their trauma and stuff after they’ve dealt with everything that we do not have to deal with as normal citizens. That’s a huge appeal of the series as well.”
“That also speaks directly to the strength of Baldvin as a filmmaker,” Rúnarsson says, speaking during a preview of Black Sands during a Hot Properties session at Content Nordics On Demand. “In Iceland, he’s known for creating real-life characters that you are able to relate to and empathise with. Bringing that to the crime genre is an absolute delight. Aldís has also been absolutely breathtaking in the clips we’ve been seeing – and not only her, but the lead cast has been just fantastic. I don’t have the words to describe it. It’s absolutely amazing.”