Three teenagers investigating their friend’s disappearance clash with local police and unearth secrets of their small town in Danish drama Nordland 99. Director Kasper Møller Rask and producers Iben Søtang and Anni Faurbye Fernandez talk budgets, locations and shooting in cars.
While the novels of Stephen King and Enid Blyton might be found in different sections of a bookshop, Danish director Kasper Møller Rask took inspiration from both authors when it came to creating his first TV series, Nordland 99.
A fan of King’s stories like novella The Body, which inspired the classic movie Stand by Me, and Blyton’s The Famous Five, Rask has taken the idea of a group of young detectives and planted them in a story far more horrific than any mysteries solved by Julian, Dick, Anne, George and their dog Timmy.
A unique blend of dark crime and teenage friendship, the 1999-set series unfolds in a small town where Lukas (Elias Budde Christensen), Kris (Noa Risbro Hjerrild) and Alex (Noah Skovgaard Skands) hang out, party and try to keep boredom at bay. But when Alex disappears, Lukas and Kris team up with Alex’s sister Emma (Emilie Kroyer Koppel) to search for their missing friend.
However, their investigation rubs up against an apathetic police officer, Lukas’s father Christian (Troels Lyby), who refuses to believe Alex has vanished until a burned-out car on the outskirts of town leads both investigations to become intertwined. Buried secrets and gruesome crimes are waiting to be uncovered.
Nordland 99, which debuts on Danish public broadcaster DR tonight, emerged from Rask’s partnership with series producer Iben Søtang, with whom he has worked since they went to film school together and began making short films. The project was initially intended to be a feature film, but the pair later resolved that its expansive story better suited the show’s eight-part, 30-minute running time.
The duo then developed, financed and produced a pilot episode, which caught the eye of Nevis Productions’ Anni Faurbye Fernandez (Wisting, Atlantic Crossing).
“With the pilot, we wanted two things – to try a lot of things and also prove we could make a mainstream show on this scale,” Rask tells DQ. “We figured out a lot of stuff that worked and a lot of stuff that didn’t.”
One example is their decision to make the characters older. In the pilot, they were 15 but in the final series, they are 19 – an age that better suited themes of abuse and murder that are explored in the show.
“We had this childish tone to the pilot, almost like a Stephen Spielberg film from the 80s, and we wanted to move away from that,” Rask continues. “Then the plot, it was a girl who disappeared, who the boys were in love with. Emma, a female character, was also in love with her. But we wanted to make their connection stronger by making the missing character a friend and Emma’s brother. We tried a lot of stuff and figured out how to improve it.”
Fernandez stumbled across the pilot when she was introduced to Rask and Søtang, and was drawn to a project the likes of which she hadn’t seen before. As they worked together to develop the show and pitched it to DR, they found they wanted to tell a story about men who go missing – stories that often don’t receive a lot of press coverage.
“We had a great development phase – Kasper wrote the scripts in half a year with Josephine Leopold and this is a project where I thought, ‘These scripts are some of the best scripts I’ve read. You could go and start shooting without changing a lot of things,’” Fernandez says. “It was actually shot very closely to all the scripts. Then I remember we had a small discussion in the beginning because Kasper said, ‘I want to direct everything as well.’ I said, ‘Let’s see,’ but of course he had to direct everything.”
Rask adds: “Each episode starts right after the other one has finished so I’ve always seen it as a complete story. There was no way there would be different directors on each episode – it would either be me or someone else, but there had to be only one.”
With just a half-hour running time, each episode is tightly plotted with a focus on character development. “One of the first things Kasper said was, ‘I don’t want to fill it in with things that don’t matter. I want to focus on the characters.’ What I found good about this series is the emotional scenes with the characters and how they develop, especially the father and son relationship and some of the grown-up characters, so it appeals to a broader audience rather than just younger viewers,” Fernandez says.
Rask already had a full outline for the series when he approached Leopold to write some of the episodes. She then brought some of her own ideas to the series and together they wrote the scripts, passing manuscripts back and forth.
He would then apply his own director’s notes, which aimed to make the show as economical to film as possible. Unnecessary scenes were cut, while music cues and camera positions were added so anyone who read a finished script could visualise how the finished scene might look.
“I like the notion of reading a script and seeing the movie,” he says. “That’s what a script is supposed to do – it’s a blueprint for a film. And it makes no sense if I’m the only one who knows what we’re about to do. You might as well write what happens and how you see it.”
“If Kasper hasn’t written it like that, we would not have been able to do this on the budget,” Fernandez adds. “That was a big help for everyone.”
The budget also influenced Rask’s filming style. He would shoot each scene a maximum of three times, using either a camera “on sticks” or on a dolly in a very controlled way. The 90s setting then informed the show’s colour tones and the characters’ costumes, blending the style of movies such as Seven and The Silence of the Lambs with David Lynch’s classic TV series Twin Peaks.
But rather than choosing the setting for any stylistic reasons, the story takes place in the 90s for entirely plot-driven reasons. Originally, Nordland 99 had been set in the present day, but Rask found his characters were too reliant on the internet to help solve the mystery.
“In the present day, a story like this would unfold in a bedroom on a computer,” he says. “When we chose to place it in the 90s, we dove into that [period] and tried to explore it. I grew up in the 90s and I wanted the show to feel nostalgic.”
Produced by Nevis for DR and distributed by DR Sales, Nordland 99 was filmed in just 37 days in Djursland, on the east coast of Denmark’s Jutland peninsula, where a number of towns were used to create the story’s setting. Fernandez jokes that Søtang did all the hard work in production, managing the budget and securing the show’s numerous locations.
To avoid moving between locations several times a day, and to save more money, scenes across the whole series would be filmed in one location before the production would pack up and move on.
“Many of the scenes were one-shots – these young people are just geniuses. How they did it is beyond my imagination,” Fernandez says. “It was only possible to do it like that because Kasper knew what he wanted. We haven’t had any challenges in the edit or done any reshoots, which is amazing. We haven’t called people in to do extra lines. I’ve never been on a TV series before where that wasn’t needed.”
Søtang says production was “amazing, and pretty tough,” adding: “We hadn’t made a TV show before, so Kasper and I can’t promise it will be the best TV show ever but we can promise we’ve done our best. I feel like people really took that in, the whole production – set designers, camera department – it was a team effort. Even the actors helped us during the production, resetting their own clothes and picking up stuff. There were never any problems with them; everyone knew what they agreed to be a part of, which was the best feeling, even though it was really hard.”
Søtang had been a line producer on previous series but had never produced one herself until Nordland 99. What she learned most was that she needed to be as close to her team as possible. She also valued her partnership with Fernandez, who was on hand to provide a new perspective when the shoot came up against obstacles, such as the varied and inconsistent weather.
“Productions in Denmark are so small and budgets are so small, so you should try to be as close as you can,” she says. “You’ll get a better product, better actors, better everything.”
“In my experience, if you have two producers on a project, it’s a great advantage,” Fernandez says. “We couldn’t have pulled this through during shooting if Iben hadn’t been there all the time. You always have to be close and, if you can’t be close, you have to have a close producing partner that you trust. We had a lot of challenges but they solved them because they were clever about everything.”
One thing Rask would never do again is set so many scenes in cars, in a bid to reduce the number of locations in the show. “It’s really difficult to shoot inside a car,” he says. “We have so many scenes inside a car and I won’t do that again. But we did a lot of things right.”
With hints of Nordic noir, Stephen King and even the Coen Brothers, Nordland 99 is a personal story of growing up in a small town, wrapped up in a “very entertaining genre story,” Rask says. “That was the starting point for me. In Denmark at least, sometimes it seems like everything is either a very personal, intimate story or high-concept genre film. We tried to place ourselves right in the middle. I’m also very inspired by American pop culture and I hope that shines through.”