Healing Henry

Healing Henry

By Michael Pickard
June 15, 2023


Director Arild Fröhlich and producer Ørjan Karlsen discuss the combative protagonist at the centre of Norwegian drama RIP Henry, while actors Carolina Vera, Cosima Shaw and Janina Isabell Batoly share their experience of filming the show’s standout sixth episode.

When it comes to his bedside manner, Henry Johnsen could use some practice. The arrogant, small-town surgeon carries an air of superiority over his colleagues and patients.

Yet in Norwegian series RIP Henry, he becomes an unlikely anti-hero when he is forced to confront life’s deepest questions after discovering he has an incurable brain tumour. Given just 12 months to live, he starts a secret battle to find a cure, but will he finally be open about his feelings?

Produced by ITV Studios Norway for Nordic streamer Viaplay, the series stars Mads Ousdal (Wisting) as Henry. Frank Kjosås (Exit), Lena Kristin Ellingsen (Norsemen) and Julie Agnete Vang (Borgen) also star in the eight-part series, which was created by Linn-Jeanette Kyed (Rådebank) and John Kåre Raake (The Fortress). Global Screen is handling international distribution.

Director Arild Fröhlich describes RIP Henry as a touching and warm drama about death, and how our lives can be suddenly changed by coincidences and forces over which we have no control.

As for Henry, “he’s a very intriguing guy,” Fröhlich tells DQ. “We’ve been using the word ‘arrogant’ because it’s a good word for his character description.” But the programme makers were conscious of not making Henry entirely unlikeable as he balances dealing with his patients while facing up to his own health issues.

RIP Henry focuses on a surgeon who has an incurable brain tumour

Producer Ørjan Karlsen says: “There’s a fine balance he has to walk because he’s supposed to be sarcastic and cruel to his environment the whole time, but if he loses the sympathy of the audience, nobody is going to be interested. Mads finds that balance perfectly. He’s cruel but he’s loveable too.”

The show also strives to blend humour with a melancholic study of grief, showing how Henry is haunted by the memory of his late wife and his role in her death.

“It’s been a task to get it to work,” Fröhlich says. “You go from one thing that’s almost stupid because it’s so funny, and then you turn it into something that is quite different by the end of the episode, and that’s what really intrigued me about it. And all the characters in the series are important. Henry is alone most of the time, so it would have been boring and not so exciting if it was only him.”

The series was created by Kyed and Raake before Fröhlich joined the production and steered it through the pandemic. The first part of the show was shot in a studio in Romania, before filming was paused for six months until it could pick up again on location in Norway.

“We decided to go there [to Romania] as there was good crew, good prices and good tax incentives. And then they shut the whole tax incentive down three months before we started shooting,” Karlsen explains. “Then when we were supposed to start shooting in March 2020, Covid hit us. So we were stuck there with a 2,400-square-metre studio build for 18 months.

“Tearing it down would cost too much, but rebuilding and deconstructing the whole thing would be even more expensive, so we waited and then we did our shooting block in autumn 2021. Then we waited until the spring in Norway when the grass was green and nature was at its best to shoot the Norway shoot.”

Henry, played by Mads Ousdal, attends a wellness retreat in the show’s sixth episode

All the interiors of the hospital and Henry’s home were built in Romania, with external scenes shot on location in the picturesque town of Odda, the setting for the series.

But just for good measure, the production then relocated a third time to Lithuania, where a studio set was built in the capital, Vilnius.

“It was a stretch,” Karlsen continues. “We had long internal discussions [at ITV] about how we could save this project, but we all believed in it and we invested so much time and money in it. We just wanted to see it complete. The cost-effective way was to produce in Romania and then spread it across to Lithuania to pick up some money [from tax incentives] along the way.”

A basement set was constructed at the studio in Vilnius, while a nearby forest was used as the location for the sixth episode, an almost entirely self-contained episode that removes Henry from his usual surroundings and places him at Amberlake Retreat, a fictional wellness centre where “miracles do happen and we can help you overcome death.”

It’s here that Henry seeks fresh treatment for his condition. But unlike the other participants, he is never entirely willing to give himself over to the alternative methods of the resort’s leader, Martha. Instead, he maintains his position as a ‘real’ doctor even while reluctantly submitting to acupuncture, massages, mud baths and literal tree hugging.

His fellow patients are Hanna, a mother-of-three from Germany who has four months to live, and Deborah, who hides her illness with humour but later reveals that doctors have given her less than two months.

Henry is the only person at the retreat who doesn’t wholeheartedly believe in its treatments

Carolina Vera (Deborah), Cosima Shaw (Martha) and Janina Isabell Batoly (Hanna) joined the production for episode six’s week-long shoot, and Shaw remembers it being tough, at least at first, to determine how to gauge the tone of the comedy-drama.

“I didn’t know how comedic it was going to be, how that would fit in and how the person who runs a retreat for terminally ill people would appear in the series,” she says. “In the end, I just had to make the choice that that’s all she cares about. The rest is just playing around and playing with each other, feeling it out and experimenting.”

“I loved the setup,” says Batoly (Verbotene Liebe). “The idea of having a lot of characters, all of them with a death sentence, meeting in one place and how they deal with that. How do they deal with the situation, with each other, with themselves, with this very beautiful and shining person [Martha] who tells them their body loves them? It’s scary – am I crazy? Is she crazy? Is she a charlatan?”

The creative team were keen to show that all the characters at the retreat, except Henry, wholeheartedly believe in the spiritual power of recovery and that the treatments can really help them.

“When you have a hospital series, it’s very important to not go on a retreat and then make fun of it,” Karlsen says. “It would be too easy and not interesting for the audience.”

In fact, it is Deborah who challenges Henry’s scepticism, telling him to “Fuck off, please,” and then asking if the reason his treatment at the “real” hospital didn’t work was because he didn’t believe in it enough.

The show is produced by ITV Studios Norway for streamer Viaplay

“So we challenge the two worlds of western and eastern medicine, and that goes to the core of whether you can heal yourself of cancer,” Karlsen continues. “If we just made fun of that, we would have ridiculed many people. It would have been a very serious situation.”

On set, the supporting actors were given room to bring their own ideas to their characters, who, thanks to the setup, had their own individual backstories they could play on. The episode also threw up new challenges for Fröhlich, who utilised the scenery surrounding the fictional retreat – where cast and crew also stayed during production.

“It’s very slow,” he says of the pace of the episode. “We had a scene where a character dies that’s seven minutes of dialogue. We wanted to give it tension without being in your face, and there was such nice light there as well. It’s one of the most intense moments in the series and I’m so happy that worked because it’s so important, that conversation where Henry finally tells somebody what he’s been carrying with him for all these years.”

“It was magical actually, it was really nice,” Berlin-born Shaw (V for Vendetta) says of being on location. “Working on such a close-knit production, we didn’t know each other and we didn’t know much about Norwegian telly to be quite honest. But to come to it when you’ve been working on big coproductions all over the world and have these people who’ve know each other for a long time on this quite localised story, finding out about Odda and the locations, it was really interesting and very special.”

Vera (My Zoe) adds: “These guys were very welcoming. Just by arriving, you feel part of it.”

“One thing I’ve learned over the years is the Scandinavian and Norwegian production model is mostly where everybody is trusted and a valued team member and we’re not too busy about hierarchy,” Karlsen says. “We talk nicely to each other, we don’t scream, we don’t run. I’ve been servicing UK productions, working with Americans and seeing how they work. There’s so much noise. We were supposed to make an episode where we find inner peace, so it came very naturally to have a very calm and smooth welcoming atmosphere.”

In the end, the journey Henry goes on to deal with his diagnosis is as complicated as the production schedule behind RIP Henry proved to be. But Karlsen and Fröhlich are rightly proud that the team pulled it off.

“Finding the tone of how funny we can be and how serious we dare to be, it’s something we didn’t know the answer to in the beginning but it came to us when we started editing,” Fröhlich says. “But because we did the editing as we shot, we could then say, ‘That’s not funny.’ It was easier after a while.”

Karlsen adds: “We had a Romanian shoot, an exterior Norwegian shoot and Lithuanian shoot, and we have an actor coming of out a hospital in Romania, into nature in Norway and into a basement built in Lithuania. Three countries in one scene and nobody noticed.”

tagged in: , , , , ,