A mother attempts to leave her criminal past behind by moving to the other side of the world in eight-part drama Straight Forward. But was this Denmark-New Zealand copro as simple as its title? Executive producer Philly de Lacey and director Charlie Haskell explain.
When it comes to language, culture and distance, the countries of Denmark and New Zealand are worlds apart. But that was exactly what executive producer Philly de Lacey was looking for when she was developing eight-part drama Straight Forward.
She admits the series was a “crazy idea,” with a story that sees a mother attempt to escape her criminal past by moving to the other side of the world. But 18 months later, the experience of working with partners thousands of miles away has meant de Lacey is already plotting her next global coproduction.
Screentime NZ was developing the idea for the series, created by writer John Banas, based on the premise that if someone wanted to go into hiding, New Zealand was as far away from anywhere else as possible. But that raised the question of where this person was running from.
A drama conference for members of Screentime parent Banijay’s production group held the answer, with Denmark’s Mastiff jumping on the idea straight away.
“We don’t think anyone’s done a Danish-New Zealand copro before,” de Lacey says. “It’s challenging because you are dealing with two different languages. But the story really lends itself to working across two countries, so it works perfectly.
“They are worlds apart, and that’s what really appealed to Denmark being our partner. It’s a complete contradiction to what we see in New Zealand. Copenhagen is a beautiful city with a massive history while New Zealand has a different language, landscapes and a young history. We couldn’t get more polar opposite and that’s part of the beauty of it. Although we’re culturally similar in a lot of places, there are lots of differences to play on too.”
Filming took place for more than four months, mostly in New Zealand, with studio space in Auckland and location shooting in Queenstown, where the story is set. A second unit later travelled to Copenhagen to pick up establishing scenes and exterior shots of the Danish capital.
De Lacey admits it’s impossible to know what lies ahead when you’re planning a TV production, never mind one that tells a story spanning thousands of miles around the world. But despite the complications of nine partners, including the Copenhagen Film Fund and New Zealand Film Commission, she says the willingness of everyone to work together made the process easier than expected.
Screentime and Mastiff split casting duties, with each forwarding tapes of prospective actors to the other. But the key to the partnership was simply knowing what the show was going to be. From the opening pitch, Mastiff and Screentime collaborated on the scripts and ideas to develop the characters, while the Danish cast in particular was hugely influential.
“We really needed their input into the Danish scenes,” de Lacey reveals. “We had translators on set and our directors could judge the performances, but we needed to rely on our Danish cast a lot for their input, particularly into Danish culture and the way things would be represented. It was critical for us that when the show goes out, the Danish audience really believes the authenticity of the Danish elements.”
Nordic streamer Viaplay will carry the series, alongside New Zealand’s TVNZ in association with Acorn Media Enterprises and Acorn TV in the US. Banijay Rights holds international distribution rights (excluding New Zealand, Scandinavia, North America, the UK and Australia).
The story starts in Denmark and follows fraudster Silvia Petersen (Cecilie Stenspil) as she flees her home, leaving her mother (Vibeke Hastrup) and daughter (Marie Boda) behind. Landing in Queenstown under the alias Robyn Ford, Silvia discovers her family are also in danger in Copenhagen. Dual timelines are used to show Silvia trying to hide her identity in her new home while people are trying to track her down in Denmark.
Not everything set in Denmark was shot in Copenhagen, however, with interiors and some exteriors filmed at the series’ Auckland studio. One subsequent challenge came when trying to replicate a Danish road in New Zealand, where cars drive on the left side of the road in right-hand-drive cars – the opposite to Denmark.
To overcome this hurdle, the production team decided that everything in these shots needed to be symmetrical so when the shot was flipped, everything would look authentic. Number plates were also printed backwards.
Three directors helmed the series across four filming blocks, with Charlie Haskell taking charge on episodes three and four as well as leading the second unit in Copenhagen. Riccardo Pellizzeri led off with blocks one and four, while Peter Burger picked up block three.
Filming in Copenhagen saw Haskell fulfil a checklist of required shots: exteriors of buildings where interiors were filmed in New Zealand, atmospheric clips of the Danish city and pick-ups that would link scenes taking place in both countries, such as a phone call between two characters. He also oversaw a day and a night filming Copenhagen from above using a drone.
The director praises the attitude of the Danish cast, whom he says brought a truthfulness to their roles and ensured every scene in which they featured made sense emotionally. That was important, as Haskell couldn’t understand their Danish dialogue, and thus could judge them only on their performances.
“It was like putting your fingers in your ears and just watching the emotion of the performance, not what’s being said,” he explains. “They were very worried about us not knowing the language and not knowing how to direct those scenes. That was fair, but part of it was we could really see what they were doing emotionally, and that was really important. We had an interpreter on set so she could still tell us if they were saying the right lines. There was also a certain element of going up to them after a take and saying, ‘How was that, guys?’ which is very unusual.”
Haskell also highlights the way Danish, and more widely Scandinavian, dramas put performance at the centre of the series, rather than simply feeding the production “machine.”
“It feels like in New Zealand we work as a real machine; it’s fast and efficient,” he says. “Maybe it’s more based on the US model. That threw them a little bit. Just watching the crews in Copenhagen, it’s very casual. You don’t turn up at 08.00 and, bang, you’re into work mode. There’s a casual flow that is pretty unusual to watch. So they were a bit thrown by the fact we were such a relentless machine that wanted to keep working all the time. They would put the brakes on if needs be to make sure we did know what we were talking about.”
With Straight Forward due to premiere in 2019, de Lacey is already developing another coproduction, this time in Germany, and says she is putting into practice the lessons she has learned from working on this series.
“While we hope there’s a season two of Straight Forward, there’s a lot of stuff we’ve learned about the translation of languages,” she notes. “You can’t translate the English script directly into Danish because Danes don’t speak the same way – direct translations don’t work. So a Danish writer has to translate the scene, not the words, and make sure the dialogue works for the character. If we do a season two, we’ll bring in a Danish writer much earlier into the process.”