Feeding the Troll
Actor and producer Gabija Siurbytė tells DQ how she hopes to put Lithuanian series on the international map with Trolių ferma (Troll Farm), a comedy-drama about a high-flying executive out for revenge.
With a mix of modern and period architecture that means its cities and landscapes can double as Sweden, France, Russia and Austria – but at a fraction of the cost – Lithuania has established itself as an attractive filming hub for productions from across Europe and the US.
HBO and Sky’s award-winning Chernobyl, Netflix’s 80s-set phenomenon Stranger Things and crime drama Young Wallander have all made the country and its capital, Vilnius, their home, as have German period drama Sisi, Helen Mirren-fronted Catherine the Great and the BBC’s adaptation of Tolstoy epic War & Peace.
Now, with Trolių ferma (Troll Farm), the Lithuanian industry is taking its own first steps into high-end drama with a series it hopes will put local drama on the international map. And in once sense at least, that much has already been achieved, with the Berlin International Film Festival selecting the show for the event’s Berlinale Series Market Screenings next week.
Developed by Lithuanian broadcaster LRT, streamer Telia and the Lithuanian Film Centre, the five-part comedy-drama is pitched as a modern interpretation of The Count of Monte Cristo, following a high-ranking executive as she seeks revenge on those she believes are responsible for her downfall.
After being wrongly fired from Melta Cosmetics, an international beauty brand that has been selling a deadly lipstick line, ‘corporate diva’ Ana is determined to clear her name, win back her husband and daughter, and prove to the world that she was a scapegoat by destroying Melta and her pretentious boss Adomas Gylys.
To achieve her goal, she moves to a farm to establish a cover growing apples and raising chickens while running a very different farm, a so-called troll farm, which she plans to use to bring down Melta. But blinded by her desire for revenge, she slowly becomes the monster she’s fighting.
Starring in the series is Gabija Siurbytė, who plays Ana. But her on-screen role isn’t the end of her involvement. She is also the co-creator and showrunner of the drama, which is produced by Dansu Films, the company she set up with her husband – and Troll Farm director – Ernestas Jankauskas.
As well as being an actor, she has served as a producer on international projects such as Sweden’s Lea and Thicker Than Water, and Netflix crime drama Clark – roles she credits with giving her the skills and experience in high-end television drama she could then apply to Troll Farm.
“It’s the first TV series ever financed by the Lithuanian Film Centre, it’s a first for Lithuanian Television and the first for the platform TeliaPlay, so we are very thankful,” the actor and producer tells DQ about the series. “In Lithuania, it’s a huge TV series, but compared to Europe, it’s not so big.
“It would never be enough to say thank you to the foreign producers that took me into their teams and taught me lots of things. I didn’t know anything about TV series or high-end drama, but from them I learned how you work with scriptwriters, who is the showrunner and how you manage budget. I know how to do films but I needed to learn how to do TV series.”
As a multi-hyphenate, Siurbytė also took inspiration from stars such as Reese Witherspoon (Big Little Lies) and Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag, Killing Eve) who have turned their attention behind the camera.
“The key to that is having a very strong crew who actually help you out,” she says. “It’s not like I’m the only one doing everything alone – absolutely not. I had amazing creators and writers in Domantė Urmonaitė and Martynas Mendelis who actually did the biggest job. On the production side, I was more like a creative producer, and then I had the whole producing team that helped me out during the financing, production and post-production. I was part of a very big crew – it’s just that maybe I was touching more things than actors normally would.”
Troll Farm has been four years in the making, ever since Siurbytė met Urmonaitė and Mendelis in her office to discuss potential projects they could work on together and their shared aspirations to bring high-end drama to Lithuania. The writers were previously selected for the 2019 C21 Drama Series Script Competition with their entry The Cloud, while Troll Farm itself was shortlisted in C21’s Autumn Winter 2020 Digital Pitch Competition.
“We talked about the fact we needed to tell a story that would be ‘glocal,’ taking something that’s Lithuanian but that could be understandable around the world,” Siurbytė says of their initial conversations. “At that time, there were newspaper articles in Lithuania about the fact we have several troll farms, and then someone said, ‘What if it was an actual farm?’
“Then because somehow all these internet things and trolls are usually connected to men, we thought it would be so fun if there was a troll farm on a real farm with chickens and some pigs and if it was a woman running it. That was the start.”
Other actors auditioned for the role of Ana, but Siurbytė admits she was always likely to play the lead character, who finds her world falling apart after she is blamed for Melta’s mistakes and her husband leaves the family home with their young daughter.
Whilebthe star agrees Ana is the show’s driving force, the character isn’t always in the spotlight, with other characters and their own storylines also coming to the fore. The cast also includes Valentinas Krulikovskis (Tomas), Andrius Paulavičius (Adomas) and Roberta Sirgedaite (Kristina).
“Funnily enough, when we were creating and filming the series, we thought the viewers would see her as a bad woman, but somehow now we get a lot of comments from viewers that they don’t hate Ana, they hate Anna’s husband,” Siurbytė says. “It’s very interesting how you create something and expect one type of review, and then you get something totally different.
“We also wanted to have her as this modern-day Monte Cristo, where she is on this revenge-driven path, where family actually comes second, and we thought she would get a lot of hate from viewers because she doesn’t prioritise her daughter.”
The series also carries an eclectic mix of Eastern and Western influences, with Siurbytė explaining that she also wanted the show to have a 90s flavour.
“For us, we care about our image and how we look. We try to be more Western but sometimes we overdo it, so we have women who like to wear high heels and a lot of make-up,” she says. “Episode one ends as they are all at the farm, and the farm thing is also very Lithuanian. We are trying to mix up the modern glass buildings and offices with some rural things and blend it all together. What I love about my country is those contrasts.”
With a background in acting and business management, stepping into a producing role was natural for Siurbytė, who immediately knew that raising a sizeable budget for the show would be her biggest challenge. Work began before the pandemic – an event that led costs to rise and the decision to cut the episode order from six to five in order to maintain the show’s creative ambitions with a €1.2m (US$1.3m) budget.
“If you don’t want to go down on the quality, it’s better to cut the number of episodes but still have the quality you want. That was a very tough choice,” she says. “Then we did a lot of rewriting. Domantė and Martynas worked their asses off. It was our first TV series, so we really wanted to find a balance between artistry and still keeping the viewers and [making sure it’s] understandable enough. We were trying to find how to play that out, in some places more successfully than in others.”
When it came to contracts, Siurbytė also found some common legal terms in the television business didn’t exist in Lithuania so she needed to amend them accordingly.
“But I was very happy to have a dedicated crew that really believed in and wanted to do this TV series,” she adds. “They worked a lot and tried to save money and find ways to make something out of almost nothing at some points. It was really fun to do but very challenging. Usually these crews are used to working with at least 10 to 20 times the budgets. The budget was huge for Lithuania but still not a lot. Even a small HBO production would have the same episode price as our five episodes.”
Five weeks before shooting was set to begin, in May last year, Siurbytė turned her focus to acting, warning the line producer and production manager that she should only be contacted about other aspects if “the shit hits the fan – and that was the case,” she reveals. “We had several situations where shit hit the fan but, other than that, I was allowed to do more creative work.”
One of those occasions arrived just days before the shoot began, when the production lost one of its main locations – the Melta offices. “But we actually managed to convince them to take us on,” she adds. “We needed to push the filming and we negotiated, which cost us money, but life is life.”
With positive reviews for Troll Farm since it launched last month on LRT and TeliaPlay, and with a screening at Berlinale – a first for a Lithuanian series – Siurbytė hopes the show will put the country on the television map for its own productions and not just as a setting for international series.
“We hope to create our Chernobyl one day,” she says of emulating the acclaimed miniseries. “That’s the ambition – to create content that somehow connects with viewers and audiences, not only in my home country but also abroad. But this is our first try, our first rodeo, and I hope it’s not the last.”