A mysterious and deadly virus has broken out in an isolated community on top of the world. DQ heads to Lapland to visit the frozen set of German-Finnish coproduction Arctic Circle.
The thermometer says it is -18°C, but with the wind-chill factor it’s closer to -35°C. The gale is so fierce the cameras have to be weighed down, while the actors are having to shout to be heard.
Crew members are covered from head to toe, with just their eyes peeping out, and wrapped up in so many layers of clothes that it’s hard to work out who’s who. No one can hear what their directions are.
It’s a wintry day two, out of 100, of filming in Finland’s frozen Lapland region for crime drama Arctic Circle, and everyone is just beginning to realise how big a challenge they have ahead of them.
“The wind was blowing so hard it was hard to even speak,” says lead actor Maximilian Bruckner, who plays virologist Thomas Lorenz, as he peels off layers and comes into the relative warmth of the ski resort restaurant in Kaunispää, northern Finland, one of the show’s bases. “It doesn’t even feel like you can work hard on the acting anymore; it is all about survival.”
His Finnish co-star Iina Kuustonen (pictured top) already has tiny little cuts, the start of chilblains, on her hands after they were exposed to the cold for just a few minutes. “I’ve put lots of cream on them and they feel a lot better,” says the star of top-rated Finnish drama Syke (Nurses). “The clothes I have to wear for my scenes are not the warmest but as soon as the cameras are off I layer up and put electric feet warmers in my shoes and mittens.
“The hardest thing I have found so far is that when it’s so cold, it’s hard to move your mouth. You slur your words; you sound almost like you are drunk. But the key is moving a lot and I think we will manage. It’s hard but it’s also brilliant.”
It should be worth the pain – Arctic Circle is ambitious in every sense of the word. A Finnish-German coproduction, it has a multi-national cast, a thrilling story that takes off in all directions and, most importantly, it is set in this fantastic, difficult and heart-stoppingly beautiful snowy wilderness.
Filmmakers often talk of the setting being a character in their dramas, but Lapland forces itself front and centre of this 10-part drama. The colours, particularly during the stunning sunrises and sunsets, create a mystical, otherworldly backdrop. And the characters behave the way they do, are who they are, because of the forbidding nature of this vast, hostile place.
“The people here are tough and have to be self-sufficient,” says Kuustonen, one of Finland’s biggest stars, who is from Helsinki but has holidayed in Lapland every year of her life. “You can’t just go to a store and buy stuff if you live in a small village here. You might be two or three hours from the nearest hospital. My character chops her own wood, she takes care of everything. People have to do that here.”
Kuustonen stars as Nina Kautsalo, a Lapland police inspector who lives in the small town of Ivalo. A former soldier in an elite branch of the Finnish military, she is also a single mother to a six-year-old girl. Most of her work is taken up dealing with drunks and minor crimes by the Lappish equivalent of hillbillies.
The actor admits it was hard work getting into shape to play this tough woman. “I had a personal trainer four or five times a week, learning the kind of stuff you do in the military,” she says. “I learned how to kick-box and also how to fire a gun. The important thing was I had to look like I knew what I was doing, I have to look as strong as her.”
One evening Nina discovers a sickening sight. A clearly ill prostitute has been chained up in a disused cabin alongside two corpses. So far, so Scandi noir – but there is a twist. Doctors treating the sick woman are mystified by her symptoms. A blood sample sent to Helsinki attracts the attention of German virologist Lorenz (Bruckner), who lives in the city. He recognises it as a dangerous and rare virus he saw in Yemen several years earlier and insists on travelling to Ivalo to see what he can learn.
He pairs up with Nina and the two find themselves fighting danger on two fronts, tackling both a mysterious killer who has been murdering prostitutes and a virus that threatens the entire world.
“I always like to try something new but this was a huge challenge for me in lots of ways,” says Bruckner. There is the role, the cold and then there is the fact that while most of his lines are in English – he speaks German only to his daughter in the show – he could barely speak the language before he got the role.
“I am mainly acting in English, but before I started all I could say was ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” he admits. “Learning English was reason why I wanted to do it and now I speak so much in English that when I had to do some German lines the other day, it felt strange. The story is a brilliant thriller. I don’t like the word ‘journey,’ but Thomas goes on one. He behaves in a way you would not expect a professor to behave. He is quite manly and heroic.”
With a gorgeous single-mum cop and a handsome, nearly divorced male professor, romance is almost inevitable, and sure enough the arc of their relationship is one of the lynchpins of the fast-moving series.
“They come from different cultures – he is much more emotional than her – and they have the weight of the world on their shoulders,” says Bruckner. “And then their relationship complicates things.”
As the case progresses, mysterious millionaire Marcus Eiben, played by German Clemens Schick (Casino Royale), heads up to Lapland too. He pretends he wants to use his charity foundation to help understand the virus but he may have more nefarious ambitions.
“He is a mysterious guy and over the 10 episodes people will know whether he is good, bad or bad with a good reason,” says Schick. Like his compatriot Bruckner, he speaks most of his lines in English, working from a script that is colour-coded for English, Finnish and German, each of the three languages used in it. “It is a challenge acting in another language but a gift too,” Schick continues. “I think I do act differently [in English]. Language is the entrance to your emotion, so speaking in another language has another entrance to your emotion. You talk differently, you emote differently. But I think these multilingual, international productions are the future of television.”
The story was developed by Yellow Film, Finland’s largest production company, which immediately envisaged Arctic Circle as its biggest project to date. Although there is Finnish in the show, the presence of foreigners means most of the conversations take place in English, a language in which most Finns become almost fluent while still at school. “The concept was always to have a virus and then to have another group of people who find out about the virus for a completely different reason,” says Yellow’s Jarkko Hentula. “It was almost three years in development but from early on we knew we wanted a foreigner, someone who has to travel and finds himself in Lapland.
“We start off with quite familiar terrain: dead bodies, the things you have seen before in police dramas. But then this virus thing comes in, and that is followed by this foreign guy who has to make friends among the local community. Episode by episode, the story gets bigger.”
Showing off the beauty of this desolate space, which has more reindeer than humans, was also top of the agenda from the off. “We always wanted to do it here in Lapland but, of course, it’s easy to write down, ‘It’s winter and -30°C and there are snowmobiles,’ but it’s quite a different thing when you start filming that,” smiles Hentula. “The biggest challenge is to capture on screen the vastness of this place, which is something unique and intriguing, and something people haven’t seen before.”
While there have been other dramas filmed in Lapland, including Sweden’s Rebecka Martinsson and the Swedish-French copro Midnight Sun, this is the first to have been filmed in Finland and the first to have been made during the height of winter. The filmmakers were encouraged by a new 25% tax incentive for productions made in the country as well as aid from House of Lapland, which helped find locations and crew to make the production as seamless as possible.
“Finnish Lapland is quite different to other places in Lapland in that there are much more open plains,” says Hentula. “It has the feeling of an American small town and we deliberately play on that. Many of the Lappish towns, including Ivalo, have just one road that all the shops and houses are along.”
Kuustonen says audiences will recognise the character of the small-town cop from US shows. “It’s like being a sheriff in the Midwest,” she says. “Everyone knows each other; in the hospital, in the bar, in the gas station.”
After developing the story, Yellow immediately got in touch with Finnish director Hannu Salonen (Shades of Guilt) who lives and works in Germany. “I immediately wanted to do it,” he recalls. “The story was brilliant but being able to set it in this postcard-style but also life-threatening landscape was exciting.”
The director was similarly excited by the idea of going “into the unknown” with the long shooting schedule in Lapland, which started after three months of filming in Helsinki. “It is a real adventure for all of us,” he says. “We don’t yet know what will happen if it gets really cold. Will our cables break? Will our cameras work? I can’t hear who is speaking to me and the actors can’t hear me. It means we can only film one or two pages a day, as opposed to eight pages.
“But then you look at the landscape. There is this beautiful blue light that stays with you for about three hours when the sun starts to set and you are reminded why we came here.”
It was Salonen who put Yellow in touch with German prodco Bavaria Fiction, which had been looking for more international projects. “Within two weeks of hearing the project, we met Yellow at Content London and from the start we felt like kindred spirits,” says Bavaria producer Moritz Polter. “From the moment we got involved, we had input in the writing process but we also had to know when to hold back. Keeping the sensibility of the local flavour was also key for us.
“One interesting thing for us was the way people talk to each other in Lapland. Everything is more straightforward because it has to be. When you go on a date, you might have travelled for two hours. That means you often don’t go back to your house after the date. There is a different way of interacting and that was fascinating for us.”
While the show has a hint of Scandi noir, the setting gives it a very different feel. “The snowy look means it is different,” Polter says. “You can see for miles and miles – it’s very different to the darkness you usually get in Scandi noir.”
The idea of a new spin on the typical Scandi crime drama – and an international show shot mainly in English – also attracted French distributor Lagardère, which immediately spotted its potential for markets around the world. “A key trend at the moment is emotional drama, and we liked that there was a real family and personal element to this show as well as the investigations into the murders and the virus,” says Frederik Range, Lagardère’s director of acquisitions. “There are lots of different layers to the story and we see it much more than a Scandi noir, which often only appeals to a narrow market and where the characters are sometimes quite cold. We believe this could do well either on mainstream or paid-for television.”
Arctic Circle is due to premiere on Finnish streaming channel Elisa Viihde this December and will then appear on linear net YLE in the same country. If it proves popular enough, there is plenty of material for a second season further exploring the backstory of the virus.
On the set, despite the difficult conditions, there is a palpable sense of excitement about the drama, which will plunge audiences into a story that’s both familiar but also unusual and strange.
“People will be surprised by and interested in this world,” adds Schick. “It is a story that has huge potential. There is a killer and, on top of that, there is this uncontrollable, scary element that is inside people and could easily get out of control. The location is beautiful and it was a brilliant move from the writers to put this darkness in the last place in the world you would expect it to be.”