Director Akseli Tuomivaara and writers Minna Panjanen and Valeria Richter take DQ into the world of Finnish series Jälkeläisten (Next of Kin), a futuristic drama that explores ethical and emotional questions around DNA, genetics and playing god.
An other-worldly Helsinki is the setting for a futuristic, contemplative Finnish drama that poses questions about humanity, who we are and how genetics binds us together.
The eight-part series, called Jälkeläisten (Next of Kin), follows Liv, played by Nika Savolainen (Shadow Lines). When she decides to uncover what happened to her DNA sample after it was stolen from a biobank, Liv finds herself being pursued by figures with sinister motives.
The Finnish-Danish cast also includes Elmer Bäck (Idiomatic), Matleena Kuusniemi (Hooked) and Antti Virmavirta (Man in Room 301), Sarah Boberg (The Bridge), Sonny Lindberg (The Rain) and May Lifschitz (Warrior Nun).
Commissioned by Elisa Viihde for its streamer Elisa Viihde Viaplay, where the show debuted on January 30, Next of Kin is produced by Bufo in partnership with distributor A+E Networks. The series is directed by Akseli Tuomivaara (Korso) from scripts by Finnish writer Minna Panjanen and Danish scribe Valeria Richter.
Here, Tuomivaara, Panjanen and Richter tell DQ about their interest in genetics, the themes behind the series and creating the show’s futuristic style.
Minna and Valeria, tell us more about the story of Next of Kin.
Panjanen: Next of Kin is about a woman, Liv Laine, who suffers from chronic pain and lives a very isolated life. She dropped out of university, prefers to work as a cleaner in a museum and keeps to herself. When her DNA sample is stolen from the Nordic Biobank, she meets a cybersecurity agent, Markus Volf [Bäck], investigating the case. Together, they discover the real source of Liv’s pain. At the same time, Finland is on the verge of a new age of genetic science. The parliament is about to vote on a new law that would allow genetic editing on embryos that will be born.
Richter: While it’s a story about Liv and Volf, it’s also a story about several sibling and parent-child relationships that will be reinforced or broken up as the two dig deeper into Liv’s case. Siblings Yoana [Kuusniemi] and Sasha [Virmavirta], who have built this huge bioscience company together, now face big personal dilemmas as their past catches up to them. I love how we have so many strong and different female characters across the main storylines, like scientist Alma [Boberg], visionary billionaire Veronica [Dennenesch Zoudé], kickass yet vulnerable Simone [Lifschitz] and turncoat politician Laura [Eeva Soivio], who all reflect different aspects of the show’s dilemmas, as mothers, daughters, lovers and sisters.
What were the origins of the project?
Panjanen: I was working at Bufo in 2015 and Mark Lwoff, co-owner and producer, brought a project idea to me from a creative producer from Denmark. It dealt with IVF and genetic editing and needed a production partner and a writer. I had never met Valeria but we both like science and science fiction and are absolute TV nerds. We started writing the story together and, seven years later, here we are.
Richter: I pitched the original project idea to Misha Jaari, also co-owner and producer at Bufo, as I had serious doubts that a ‘near-fi’ project like this could be financed out of Denmark. I was fascinated by the notion of kinship and, having done IVF myself, I wondered why people don’t question the consequences of the international egg and sperm trade more. With genetic editing, it was obvious the billion-dollar infertility industry would be the first to see the potential to monetise this science, so I started some research. As Minna and I started to develop the story, this whole world just opened up to us and we had to drop lots of cool ideas to make this story work within our Nordic context.
Why were you interested in telling a story in the world of DNA and genetics?
Richter: Our DNA is like the Holy Grail and Pandora’s Box in one – it feeds stories. During the writing process, we had to keep researching, as reality was constantly catching up with us.
Panjanen: Our series fits into the box of an entertaining and fantastical family drama but, at its core, we look at the ethical debate around gene editing from different angles. Who ends up taking responsibility? Who just wants to be in the history books? Who is genuinely trying to change the world for the better? We also have characters who make valid points about why we need gene editing. We deal with the subject of family in the same way. We ask questions about what a family is. In Next of Kin, some characters gain powers because of genetic editing. That is fun to write, but not based on real science. That’s where the fantastical part kicks in.
What themes did you want to discuss?
Richter: The science theme touches upon the classic question of how we can use things for good or for so-called evil. It was our ambition to really stay in the grey area of complex yet relatable questions, and to ground them in the characters’ journeys. The grey areas are where the audience can get engaged and negotiate their own standpoint on the theme of how to ‘play god’ with our genetic future. Emotionally, the themes explore how family and sibling relations are redefined in a time when relationships get created in labs. Looking back, acceptance is also one of the strongest themes in how Liv finds her own power.
Panjanen: It really did end up being a story about what a family is and what connects us. Genetic editing in the future will tamper with our genes so, beyond genetic connection, what makes a family?
How did you work together to write the scripts?
Panjanen: It took a while to find our double-act screenwriting system. When push came to shove, we ended up writing a lot of the scripts simultaneously. We had outlines for each episode. I would start writing one episode and Valeria would write another, and then we’d switch the files. After some back and forth, we’d read the whole script out loud together and see if something needed to be changed, and we had a veto to use when one of us really wanted to keep something in.
Richter: The veto was good. After doing loads of research, sleeping on each other’s couches and interviewing a few top scientists, we outlined the treatments and wrote the series bible during a one-week residency in Gotland in Sweden. Going into the scripts, we worked on two episodes per week, sometimes three. It got quite intense, as we kicked off after the greenlight in September 2019 with only early drafts of episodes one to three ready and a deadline to shoot by April 2020.
Moving into 2020, we had eight viable drafts and started to write simultaneously on one episode at a time, working online for about six hours a day, then dividing scenes between us to finish for the next day, trying to get the episodes ready as fast as possible.
Covid suddenly changed the plans for production, giving us six extra weeks to finalise the shooting scripts and much-needed time to go through the dialogue after the scripts had been translated into Finnish, with Minna adapting the Finnish sayings and me adapting the English and Danish lines. We last met in person in Helsinki in January 2020.
How did you want to present the show’s big ideas in an accessible and compelling way?
Richter: The genre of grounded near-fi really offers a good degree of narrative freedom and allowed us to set up a story world where we could play out themes in personal and political spheres, hooking them into the emotional and ethical questions the different characters face. We exaggerate in our story, of course, but at the core, this science is here and who do we want to be, as individuals, as a species? A baby born today will have to make some of these choices in their life. That’s compelling to me.
Akseli, what kind of visual style did you want for the show?
Tuomivaara: I fell in love with the concept created by Valeria and Minna. It is very different from other series I’ve seen coming out of the Nordics. Therefore, it also needed a unique visual style. We collected visual references and edited mood reels before pre-production, and the scripts were written in a very detailed and cinematic way, so that was a good starting point for envisioning the visual tone of our series.
I was originally aiming for a warmish look that’s rich in colour and details, just to push back against the desaturated, dark blue imagery that’s often associated with Nordic noir. But we ended up using a variety of looks depending on the scene or whatever feeling a particular location gave me, cinematographer Max Smeds and production designer Heather Loeffler.
Where was the series filmed and how did you create its futuristic look?
Tuomivaara: Because of the pandemic, all the main-unit shooting took place in the Helsinki area. Some second-unit stuff was shot in Iceland and also Hailuoto, an island in the north of Finland.
The story deals with some futuristic topics, but as the events are set only few years into the future , I didn’t want the series to try to look too science fiction. There are several storylines, and a few of them called for a quite realistic approach, as people’s homes and healthcare units wouldn’t change that much 10 years from now.
What challenges did you face along the way?
Richter: Covid and budget questions meant we had to make quite a few changes, as locations suddenly became unavailable and travel became restricted, so Finland had to stand in for Denmark, forcing us to rewrite scenes. It was heartbreaking at times to lose certain sequences or outdoor scenes, and it was a puzzle to bring together new logistics without losing the emotional logic of a scene. We had to rewrite certain scenes during the shoot as well, as restrictions kept changing.
During the writing phase, we mainly had to overcome the time pressure and, as most writers have to, navigate all the different types of feedback. I feel like we continuously lifted each other up to boost our mood and morale whenever we had setbacks or a mad deadline.
Panjanen: With a series like ours that consists of eight episodes and has a continuous plot, the hardest thing under pressure is to keep yourself from repeating similar scenes and to keep the story moving in a steady flow. As crucial characters meet for the first time, you want to give them time to get to know each other. Then when everyone is ready for action, the pace changes. Some episodes have a lot of character meetings, while some are more action-based. Especially in television, characters are the main draw, so you want to give them time to develop.
Tuomivaara: The story involves some state-of-the-art laboratories, biobanks and science facilities. As such locations don’t exist yet, at least here in Helsinki, or didn’t let us in for filming, we needed to create them from scratch. That process was one of the hardest – and also most rewarding – parts of creating this series. As we were shooting mainly on location and building only few essential sets, we needed to combine multiple locations together in a very creative way.
Why do you think this show might appeal to international viewers?
Richter: We wrote it with international viewers in mind, so hopefully there is some appeal in a Nordic show tackling a global question, leaping off from our particular culture and sensitivities. I hope women will discover the show, because on the surface it might appeal more to a male audience.
Like climate change, genetic science and genetic editing in particular affects us all on a global scale. The Covid crisis also resonates, and vaccine issues have revealed a need for transparency and social justice. Science and society need to have more and better dialogue. There are lots of questions to explore and debate. Hopefully the characters and the story will appeal enough for viewers to become curious and engage in the bigger, real-world questions as well.
Is there a message you want viewers to take from the series?
Richter: It’s an origin story at heart. We can’t choose how we come into this world, but we can choose how we want to be, and I am fascinated by the idea that when early humans started to spread across the globe, we were more than one human species living at the same time. Next of Kin plants this notion that it could happen again. The reason we insisted on creating main characters who are not easily judged as either heroes or villains is also because we want a public debate. It is high time, and the science community is pushing for it.