Getting their Grove on

Getting their Grove on

By Michael Pickard
April 9, 2024


After a decade in development, a TV adaptation of Minna Lindgren’s detective novels is set to arrive on Finnish streamer Elisa Viihde. Sunset Grove director Taru Mäkelä, writer Johanna Hartikainen and star Leena Uotila discuss this comedy murder-mystery set in a retirement home.

Though no television series arrives on screen without a false start or two, Finnish comedy-drama Sunset Grove can claim to have had more than most.

More than a decade in the works with various companies, the series based on Minna Lindgren’s beloved trilogy of novels is finally set to arrive thanks to a partnership between Aurora Studios and its production subsidiary Helsinki-Filmi, distributor Oble and streamer Elisa Viihde.

Known locally as Ehtoolehto, the eight-part series introduces Siiri and Irma, best friends and queen bees of the Sunset Grove retirement home. Their lives are filled mostly with card games, never-ending arts and crafts sessions and accordion evenings – but when their comfortable world is upturned by the suspicious death of young and charming cook Tero, Siiri and Irma are determined to find out exactly what happened and why.

In a show that tackles themes of old age, friendship and dementia with humour and sensitivity, Siiri and Irma soon find life at Sunset Grove isn’t as monotonous as they thought.

Currently in post-production ahead of an anticipated 2025 launch, the series is based on the first novel in Lindgren’s trilogy, Kuolema Ehtoolehdossa (Death at Sunset Grove), which gives rise to the Lavender Ladies Detective Agency. It also comes from a female creative duo of director Taru Mäkelä and writer Johanna Hartikainen.

Sunset Grove focuses on two women in a retirement home who find themselves investigating a death

“This is a very old project, which has had many starts but it had not materialised,” Mäkelä tells DQ. “There have been many producers and screenwriters and directors who have tried to make this. But the original Sunset Grove book has been a huge success – it has been sold to 18 countries, so the basis [for a TV series] is very good.”

Mäkelä got the call from Aurora producer Severi Koivusalo to join the project last summer, by which time Sunset Grove had been in various stages of adaptation since it was first published in 2013. “To be honest, I feel the main reason it wasn’t made before then was because of its main characters, who are 80- to 90-year-old women,” says Koivusalo. “World financiers weren’t ready before now and I feel we also faced some doubts about it here, except for our main commissioner Elisa and sales company Oble, which had the courage and understanding [to back the project] from the beginning.”

Aurora first partnered with Fire Monkey’s Mikko Pöllä and his team to develop an adaptation. Then building on that work, Koivusalo called up Mäkelä to take the project forward with Helsinki-Filmi.

Mäkelä had previously directed a stage play based on another book by Lindgren and was perfectly placed to steer Sunset Grove. She then suggested Hartikainen as the screenwriter.

“They both had experiences with retirement homes and how we have messed up the system with how we treat elderly people in Finland, and therefore understood the darkness behind the comedy to bring it alive,” Koivusalo says.

“The book is very rich, it’s very dark and serious,” says Mäkelä. “A common problem in Europe is that people have this dream of very long lives, but it means we also tend to be old for a long time, and that creates lots of problems because we want to have control of everything. Then when people get old, people tend to take control away from them.”

Leena Uotila (left) and Eeva Litmanen take the lead as Siiri and Irma respectively

At the start of the story, Siiri, played by Leena Uotila, just wants to be left alone and has no intention of becoming a Finnish Miss Marple.

“She’s a very formal person, she likes architecture and has a rich life for herself outside of other people,” Uotila explains. “She likes to be alone and watch her wonderful Helsinki, which she loves. She likes to read and has her own life within the retirement home.

“But little by little, strange things happen there. And because she’s very curious, she gets interested in these events. In this way, she gets more courage and strength, and she understands how they have to take things into their own hands, start to organise and help other people. This other friend of hers, her neighbour, has this saying, ‘Death, death, death.’ They always talk about death, and that has been such a common joke for them. Now she is getting stronger and helping people to survive.”

“I said to Leena she could play Wonder Woman [in the show], because it’s a thriller and, in the end, it’s pure action and violence – stuff you wouldn’t expect in an old people’s home,” says Mäkelä.

The director says she wouldn’t describe Siiri and Irma as natural detectives, with Siiri’s hermetic life contrasting with the more lively Irma. But Irma soon drags her friend into a “thrilling adventure.”

“I like the story because it’s about friendship,” she continues. “The older you get, the harder it is to have new friends. Most of your friends are the ones you had as a child or a teenager. Somehow this is a very warm and heartfelt story – these people don’t know each other but, since they live in the same house and building, on the same corridor, they become attached to each other and are very good friends.”

Familiar with Lindgren’s novels, Uotila was particularly drawn to the project after learning Mäkelä was attached to direct. “When Taru called me, I already knew it would be good because I know her humour,” she says. “But actually I didn’t know which role [I would play]. Taru didn’t tell me. It was only when we started shooting that I understood how many lines I had – and actually I’m in every scene.”

Sunset Grove is based on the first in a trilogy of detective novels by Minna Lindgren

Similarly, it was Mäkelä who sold the idea to writer Hartikainen. She then promptly read Lindgren’s novels and discussed her ideas with Mäkelä – the director had also compiled her own notes about the characters – before starting work on the scripts.

“It wasn’t a challenge because Minna’s characters are so good, so real and loveable, and they have this comedy inside them all the time,” the writer says. “I loved writing them because finally I was able to write people who are real. I didn’t think of them as old people, they were just good characters. It was great working together with Taru and Severi. We were in contact all the time, so it was easy and safe and funny and great. I wish I could come back to this world someday.”

“I got the call from Severi last summer so we didn’t have too much time to waste,” Mäkelä adds. “The channel really liked the scripts so we made fast decisions concerning the production and we did it. I don’t think we discussed it so much, we just did it. Filming was great fun. You shouldn’t say work is fun, but for me it is always playful and fun.”

More than 90% of the series was filmed on location, with the production taking over a former retirement home that had been left vacant – and the setting certainly adds an air of authenticity to a series that blends comedy and tragedy.

“All good humour and good comedy actually comes out of quite tragic elements,” notes Mäkelä. “These characters, they are old. For them, death is something very realistic. At their age, it’s just a part of their life. They are very realistic about life and death, which I like. Leena’s character says, ‘If I get a life sentence in prison, it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a couple of years.’”

It’s not just the story that stands apart from traditional murder mysteries; it’s also the style in which the show has been shot that differentiates it from its Scandinavian peers.

“I hate Nordic noir,” the director reveals. “I wanted colours. They give you energy. That was what we decided with the set and dress designer and the DOP. We are not going to make a monochromatic Nordic noir. I remember from my childhood these Russian films with soft colour, which was some sort of brown and green, which is something similar to Nordic noir. But I like intense colours.”

Uotila describes filming the series as “very fun but very intense,” not least because she was on set the majority of the time. “I had to run to change clothes and run back, reading the scripts for the next thing I say. But it was very fun,” she says. “We also had this sarcastic humour among us. That’s the humour I like.”

With Lindgren’s books travelling around the world, Mäkelä now hopes the Sunset Grove series will have a similar impact after its launch in Finland on Elisa Viihde. But while fans of the novels will recognise the characters, “we have adapted it freely,” she notes. “I love screwball comedies, and that kind of style and rhythm [in the series] is definitely different to a novel. We have 25-minute episodes, so you have to be quick. So we have adapted it a lot, but everyone who has read the books will recognise the characters and the main events.”

“Of course there will be people who say it was not like that in the book, but most people should love this adaptation because Johanna has done very good work taking different parts of the novel and putting them together in a refreshing way,” Uotila adds. “I hope people will look at it and understand this.”

But the fact that Sunset Grove has been made at all, finally, should be reason enough to celebrate.

“This is quite unique,” Mäkelä says. “All our actors and actresses [in the series] are national treasures to us here in Finland, and everybody understands and appreciates that quality of acting. Of course, the basis for the story is so important and serious – hoping we get old before we die but how we are afraid of losing control. These are very strong themes, but now we have seen all the episodes cut together, it’s very charming.”

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