Forbrydelsen (The Killing) writer Torleif Hoppe speaks to DQ about the genre-defining Danish series and how his latest crime drama, DNA, flips the script on its leading detective.
When it comes to creating crime dramas, for Danish writer Torleif Hoppe, it’s in the blood. More than a decade ago, Hoppe was one of the key creatives involved in developing breakout drama Forbrydelsen (The Killing), before writing on other notable series such as Den som Dræber (Those Who Kill) and Broen (The Bridge).
It’s clearly a genre he feels at home with, though that wasn’t always the case. “When we wrote The Killing [with creator Søren Sveistrup], I didn’t have any experience in the crime genre at all,” he admits. “None of us actually did at that time. We had to just start researching it and figure out what police work is like, because everything we knew was from watching crime series, particularly American crime series, and stuff like that. It’s not exactly the same in Denmark, to say the least.”
Hoppe was with Sveistrup from the beginning, working together to help forge the series into what is still the defining ‘Nordic noir’ series, owing to its dark murder mystery themes and brooding Copenhagen cityscapes.
The writer believes one reason the series, which ran for three seasons, proved so popular, not just at home but around the world, is that they wanted to avoid making a crime series like anything else they had already seen. Another reason behind its success was its lead character Sarah Lund, portrayed by Sofie Gråbøl, and her penchant for patterned knitwear. Hoppe reveals that her fashion sense was based on a real-life police officer they spoke to, who did similar work to Lund, and often wore jeans and a sweater, rather than an official uniform. “
So we joked, ‘Sarah’s going to wear jeans and a sweater,” he says. “Then when it had already become kind of iconic, it was going to be shown in Germany and they were doing some of the material for the press release. They sent us some photos they had photoshopped to see if we liked them – and they replaced the sweater with a blue shirt and tie so that everyone could see that it was a policewoman.”
In his latest series, DNA, there’s no mistaking the central character, criminal investigator Rolf Larsen (Anders W Berthelsen) as anything other than a police officer, his identity card hanging around his neck as he strives to solve a case that takes him across Europe. What begins as the search for a missing toddler in episode one quickly becomes a story of personal tragedy when his own baby daughter inexplicably vanishes and is presumed dead, leaving him heartbroken and stricken with grief.
Five years later, he discovers there is a fault with the Danish national DNA register, news that brings fresh hope that his daughter might still be alive. He then embarks on an unauthorised investigation that leads him into the world of illegal child trafficking.
The eight-part crime thriller comes from Nordisk Film Production, in collaboration with France’s French Kiss Pictures for broadcasters TV2 in Denmark and Arte France. Norway’s NRK, YLE in Finland, SVT in Sweden and Icelandic broadcaster RUV will also air the series.
It was Hoppe’s desire to write a crime series about an investigator trying to solve their own problems, rather than someone else’s, that gave him the first idea for DNA. “That was the driving engine behind the story,” he says. “The ambition was definitely to make a crime story where it was about an investigator’s own life, where the crime plot had something to do with him personally.”
His plan for a new series initially began as a case-of-the-week procedural, but when he presented one potential storyline that focused more on the investigator’s personal life, TV2 asked him to turn that into a serialised storyline that would run across the entire series.
“I wanted to do something about a missing child, and I realised that when you talk about children and adoption, there are so many dilemmas,” Hoppe explains. “It looks really nice from one perspective. A child is taken from somewhere and brought to a wealthy family where they can get an education. It sounds really nice. But from the other side, to take a child from a mother, no matter whether she is rich or poor, and give it to another person, it’s not necessarily a good thing in the eyes of the woman who gave birth to that child.
“The more I started to dive into that, the story became about trafficking of children for surrogacy and adoption, not other trafficking purposes. I found that’s something that does take place, and as soon as it becomes an unauthorised business then there aren’t really any rules.”
But what started out as a “very Danish story” soon expanded to take in other countries in Europe when Hoppe settled on the trafficking storyline, particularly Poland and France, where Rolf teams up with another investigator, Claire Bobain, played by British actor Charlotte Rampling (Broadchurch). Other cast members include Zofia Wichlacz (World on Fire, 1983) as Julita Sienko, Nicolas Bro (The Bridge) as Jarl Skaubo and Olivia Joof (Boogie) as Neel Skibsted.
“In the beginning, everything was seen from the Danish police officer’s point of view,” he says. “But just seeing everything from his perspective became a bit boring. So after I had already written the whole story, I went back and created a Polish strand that weaves into the Danish investigator’s story.”
Arte was involved from the start, while Newen Distribution also invested in the project at an early stage, contributing to the series financing and picking up global distribution rights to the series.
“At first, I tried to make sure that I wrote enough scenes that took place in France to please Arte, because I thought the characters had to go to France. But they just came back to me and said, ‘You don’t have to do this, you don’t have to bring them to France to please us.’ So they were very easy with that and just gave me really good feedback and we bounced really well with ideas and different angles to the story.
“But at some point, I realised we needed to have a French police officer and I wanted somebody who had some authority. The producer kept on sending photos and suggestions of actresses but they weren’t what I was looking for. A friend suggested someone like Charlotte Rampling, and I was like, ‘Yes exactly.’ Then they asked her and she read the script and she liked it.”
Hoppe wrote the series on his own, with additional support from writer Nanna Westh (Friheden, Arvingerne), who assisted with some drafts. But before he sits down to write the scripts, he says he likes to know where the story is heading, but not exactly how it will end. “Then you figure out how to get there along the way,” he explains, noting that he uses particular milestones through the series to make sure he is taking the story along the right path.
“With The Killing, we made an overall outline and then wrote three episodes that we went back and forth on to make them work,” Hoppe recalls. “Then we wrote one episode at a time. In this case, probably because there’s been so much time in development, I worked mostly on the first couple of episodes and then wrote the rest of the series in a couple of drafts so I knew what would happen.
“Because it’s a complicated story with different timelines, it’s nice to go back and forth and put something in here or change something there to make it work better. In this case, they didn’t start shooting until everything was written. When we did The Killing, they started to shoot episode one when we had only finished writing episode three.”
DNA was shot entirely on location, taking in landscapes and backdrops in Denmark, France and the Czech Republic. Hoppe says he likes to visit the set, but doesn’t like to interfere once the directors – in this case Kasper Gaardsøe (The Team) and Roni Ezra (The New Nurses) – are committing his scripts to film.
“It’s difficult because every time I go on set they all have a million questions,” he jokes. “So I realise it may be a good idea to stick around because it’s so much more under my skin because I’ve breathed this for years. Some things they can discuss and then they ask me. It’s helpful in that respect and useful. But I shouldn’t be there to dictate what people should do because you need to trust people. You expect people to be talented and do their best and in order to do their best, they must have freedom to do the best they can.”
But does the series carry the Nordic noir traditions that have characterised many Danish – and Scandinavian – crime series since The Killing burst onto television screens?
“Nordic noir was something somebody used to describe what we did with The Killing,” Hoppe explains. “That was maybe the first time I heard that expression. It was not our ambition to make something that we could call Nordic noir, I never called it that. When we did The Killing, we liked it to be dark and rainy. I did not feel that I needed that in this. You could say thematically it’s dark, it’s about abducted children, but it’s not filmed in the dark.
“With DNA, we did not try to force it into darkness. I really like the fact that there are so many places in the story. It’s set in so many different places and in so many different environments. That feels like a colourful thing to me. When the production designer put up all the photos of places they could shoot and locations from the northern parts of Denmark to the Czech Republic, it just felt very rich. So I wouldn’t call it Nordic noir.”
When the story reaches its conclusion, the writer hopes to have raised questions about how the good things people do, such as adopting children, can become corrupted when money becomes involved.
“Life has become a commodity in a way nowadays, it’s almost like it’s a human right to have a child,” Hoppe says. “I’m not trying to say what’s right and what’s wrong. Things are not really black and white in these areas. But you need to think about what is right and what is good for a child and how they’re brought up.
“Does it matter if your genes are related to your parents or is it more important that your parent is your real parent? That has a lot to do with identity and where you come from and how you connect with the world, and that’s an issue that is brought up a lot in DNA.”