Grand designs

Grand designs

By Michael Pickard
February 16, 2023

The Director’s Chair

Director Kerren Lumer-Klabbers explains how she laid the foundations for her first TV series, Norwegian drama Arkitekten (The Architect), which presents a near-future Oslo where a young woman finds an unusual solution to building new housing.

In the familiar yet futuristic world of Norwegian series Arkitekten (The Architect), dogs are walked by drones and mortgage decisions are handed down by robotic voices emerging from boxes similar to those that take your order at a fast-food drive-through.

It’s here that viewers find titular architect Julie (Eili Harboe), for whom disappointment turns to opportunity when she and her friend stumble upon a growing community living illegally in an abandoned underground car park. So when a project to build a thousand flats in Oslo is put out to tender, she has an idea: why not convert these empty car parks into residential buildings?

The four-part Viaplay series is a darkly satirical story set in a not-too-distant future that riffs on themes of inequality, self-interest, loneliness and isolation as Julie must decide whether to prioritise her closest friendship or her career.

Produced by Nordisk Film Production and distributed by Viaplay, The Architect is the first television series helmed by director Kerren Lumer-Klabbers after shooting a number of short films. Having joined up with writers Nora Landsrød and Kristian Kilde just over a year ago, the Danish filmmaker found herself on an accelerated production process that will see the series have its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival next week as part of Berlinale Series.

“Because it was so low budget, we had the possibility, thanks to Viaplay, to just go for it,” she tells DQ from her home in Copenhagen. “We’ve spent a lot of energy in getting the futuristic style into the universe so that it wasn’t depending on a lot of post-production. We’ve tried to find creative solutions to make it futuristic with a low budget, which has actually been really fun.”

Kerren Lumer-Klabbers (centre) with writers Nora Landsrød and Kristian Kilde

A graduate of the Norwegian Film School, Lumer-Klabbers was paired up with the writers by Nordisk Film after the producers saw her graduation film, Papapa, which tells the story of a young girl meeting her biological father for the first time.

“That also has a futuristic, absurd vibe to it, so they thought I would be a great fit and they were right,” she says.

The director was drawn to the show’s humour and pacing, as well as the exaggerations of present-day society and what the near future might look like. The series also highlights things that might not be so good if society continues to follow its current path, such as individualism and putting career progression above family and friends. “Even though we live really close to each other, we don’t know each other and we don’t really communicate with each other,” Lumer-Klabbers says. “We’re trying to exaggerate that in the series, and doing it with humour in a nice way.”

Julie, she continues, is very much a product of that society. “In many ways, I can also relate to her in terms of putting friendships and family aside in order to pursue a career. She’s struggling between becoming, and succeeding as, an architect and then being there for people around her. That’s her dilemma and thematically also what we are trying to explore in the series.”

By the time Lumer-Klabbers met Landsrød and Kilde, a first draft of episode one was already in place. The director says the story was very different from the final version, “but it was very well written, and I could feel their humour and the pacing, the energy that was in the material and the original ideas that made every scene a bit different from what I had seen before,” she says. They spent the first two months working together over Zoom, sharpening the sci-fi-infused story and its dramatic arc, but the budget was never far from their minds as they worked with production designer Signe Krab Nymann to imagine how real locations might be transformed for the series.

Eili Harboe plays an architect who wants to convert empty car parks into residential buildings

“I could sit with her and talk about that, and then I could take our ideas with me into the writers room and feed them with my ideas and thoughts, and they could then give ideas to the production designer,” Lumer-Klabbers says. “It was very much a back-and-forth collaboration. Sometimes if they wrote a scene that was too expensive, we could discuss how to put that in another location or find another futuristic way to make it less expensive. The interesting part is that when we did that, it became more fun because it was more original, as we had to do it differently from our first thought.”

Lumer-Klabbers reunited with cinematographer David Bauer on the project, having previously worked with him on some of her short films. This time, they decided to use the camera in a way that comments on what is happening in the story, using a zoom lens to hone in on characters’ reactions, echoing the approach used on shows like The Office and Succession.

“We are observing the characters with the camera, and sometimes the camera has its own agenda, putting extra pressure on them and revealing their insecurities,” she says. “I hadn’t worked with a zoom lens before and my cinematographer hadn’t either, so it was a new way to shoot for both of us, but it felt very natural and freeing. Every take was different.”

Similarly, actors including Harboe, Fredrik Stenberg D-S, Ingrid Unnur Giæver, Alexandra Gjerpen and Petronella Barker were often given the freedom to stray from their marks during scenes. With a moving camera, they also didn’t know whether they were in shot as filming took place on location around Oslo, where more futuristic-looking buildings were chosen and older ones avoided.

“It was definitely about choosing our angles and dressing the environment to our needs,” Lumer-Klabbers says. “We wanted it to be in the future, but not in 5,000 years. It’s a near future so that it’s still relatable. If you think about, for example, London, many buildings are actually the same as 20 years ago and some are new. So we wanted it to be in the future but a relatable future.”

The series is set in Norway capital Oslo in a ‘relatable future’

With such a short turnaround time, preparation was key, and securing the cast, locations and crew early on meant that once filming was underway over three weeks last October, the director found time to allow the actors to improvise in some scenes or add an entirely new scene into the scheduling. “Our shooting style also gave us some freedom to move fast,” she says. “I was really impressed with our cast because every take was good, and that meant we also had a lot of freedom in post-production to choose which direction we wanted to take the show in.”

Now thinking about her next project – she has TV shows and films in development – Lumer-Klabbers’ experience on Arkitekten has reaffirmed to her the importance of a good script and the value of working out any problems before arriving on set.

“Now I want to try to hold on to that because that can easily be pushed away when you work on bigger shows,” she says. “The writing is also so important, and then casting – if you have the right cast, you’re halfway there. I’ve always appreciated having time in the editing, but I would love to have even more time. Editing is not very expensive, but it can make the whole difference. You can really change a series or a film if you have time in the editing.”

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