Life story

Life story

Michael Pickard
By Michael Pickard
September 4, 2020

IN FOCUS

Norwegian crime drama For Life seeks to upend the traditional police procedural formula with time jumps and different genre styles for each episode, as creator and writer Gjermund S Eriksen and producer Håkon Briseid explain.

There aren’t many television dramas that would cite US animated comedy Family Guy and long-running sitcom How I Met Your Mother as inspirations. But for the team behind Norwegian crime drama Livstid (For Life), those shows provided the perfect blueprint for their ambitions to reinvent the traditional police procedural.

When viewers first meet Victoria Woll, she is in prison. But as events unfold in the present day across the eight-part series, we also follow her 15 years earlier as a police investigator.  In each episode, she solves a unique crime that reveals a piece of the puzzle about her past and how she ended up behind bars.

Mixing crime and entertainment to create “happy noir,” the NRK drama comes from creator Gjermund S Eriksen (Mammon) and production company Monster Scripted, which is led by CEO Håkon Briseid. NENT Studios UK has already sold the series to SBS in Australia, Canal+ in France and Slovenia’s Pro Plus ahead of its debut on the Norwegian pubcaster this Sunday.

Gjermund S Eriksen

“The Killing, The Bridge and other Nordic noirs are massively entertaining but they’re also dark. The world always goes to hell,” Eriksen tells DQ in Berlin, where For Life was screened at Berlinale earlier this year. “When we had our first discussions, we were working on another show, a non-procedural. But the broadcaster wanted a procedural. We were saying, ‘Why?’”

But it was while watching CBS comedy How I Met Your Mother, in which the narrator recounts how he met his children’s mother, that Eriksen struck an idea of how a procedural could be reshaped in a more entertaining form.

“They always start by saying, ‘This happened just before I met your mother.’ That’s when we thought, ‘OK, we could make How I Met Your Murderer,’” Eriksen continues. “We changed up the story perspective so we could tell many different crime stories within different sub-genres. We do not resemble How I Met Your Mother at all, but that’s where the idea came from to have some part of the story placed in the future.

“Making the series was a puzzle because each episode has to be entertaining. It has to be a well-told crime story, have some relationship to the main character and become another piece of the puzzle that’s happening in the future. The best show that started to experiment with flashing forward is [Glenn Close thriller] Damages. They reinvented how you use that not for annoying exposition but where you’re hooking the audience on character dilemmas in the future and you’re constantly changing and shifting character perspectives in each episode.”

Briseid points to the popularity of US procedurals in Norway and the fact that the country hasn’t produced a “traditional” procedural for at least 10 years, preferring the serialised storytelling that has become synonymous with binge-watching on streaming platforms.

For Life stars Tone Mostraum (left) as police investigator Victoria Woll

“We’re really going against the grain,” the producer says. “We wanted to make something you appreciate like sitcoms or watching an episode of Family Guy. You don’t have to remember the last episode or the next one. It’s always entertaining. That’s why we studied the mechanisms of what makes sitcoms entertaining – we have to take out the comedy and people are dying instead – and found it’s about the creativity of storytelling.

“There are some procedurals that follow the recipe. Each time on the minute, that happens and that happens. That’s not very creative, and then you only attract the standard procedural viewer. If we can entertain more and bring nuance to how we tell crime stories, we think we can be bigger than traditional procedural.”

Part of the creative flair of For Life lies in the sub-genres of each episode. Episode one, for example, is akin to a classic conspiracy thriller, episode two is a political thriller, episode four is a psychological thriller set in a mental health hospital and episode six is set against the backdrop of a reality TV show. Eriksen pitches the latter as Knives Out meets Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

Håkon Briseid

“We tried to be playful with the show,” Briseid says. “We used the potential in every setting and let that play out in that individual episode. Then you use the tools of that genre in the directing as well and the lighting – but no so much that it will take over.”

“If you see the emotions involved in a classic Nordic noir, you have fear and disgust. All the emotions are dark ones,” says Eriksen. “If you add joy in some sense, you get a richer TV viewing experience emotionally. You have some warmth, some smiles. We’re not doing a feel-good, blue-sky series, but there is some warmth to it, and there are very few warm moments for Sara Lund [in The Killing] or Saga Norén [in The Bridge].

“We wanted to have a show that says human life is richer and crime storytelling can have fun. We saw in Killing Eve how that kind of tone brings a new approach. It’s made with a love of crime stories; we love crime stories. We’re not saying all procedurals are bad, but we haven’t seen that many with uplifting moods.”

A student of American television, Eriksen also looked at hit medical series House and its main character, Dr Gregory House (played by Hugh Laurie), when it came to creating For Life protagonist Victoria. In particular, he noted the baggage Dr House carries with him and how his backstory is slowly revealed through each episode. “We wanted to create that kind of character who has had some classic background, so she lost her parents to an unsolvable crime,” he says. “Yes, it’s been done before, but it’s easier to relate to a crime fighter who has lost their parents.

“Her backstory is always relevant to the crime story and that gives her new dimensions. It’s also a feminist project in the sense that, in the first season, I don’t think a man saves her at any time. We thought it was time we didn’t have these sulky female characters who doubt themselves all the time. We wanted a woman who knows more than men and then she poses a threat to her police, judicial and media environment.

The series unravels how Woll goes from investigator to convicted criminal

“The secret of House is he knows more, most of the time, but he’s not that talented in explaining it. Victoria doesn’t have a super power. She’s not like Sherlock Holmes when he’s deducing mysteries. But she’s way above-average smart. That gives the drama tension because no one likes that. She has had tons of bullshit in her life. She doesn’t have time for it.”

The series was filmed in and around Norway capital Oslo for 80 days between January and August last year, but not before Eriksen had overseen the scriptwriting process with a writers room.

“We structured it in different phases, cracking the big arcs and then diving in episode by episode, always with three or four writers cracking the episode outline and then one writer going to write it,” he explains. “It was really based on the American model where you work for three weeks on the structure of the episode and then send the episode writer out. That was extremely rewarding. I top-wrote on everything and am involved in every episode. I will describe myself as a showrunner, but not in an American way. It’s a writer-producer in the Scandinavian model, so we are showrunners with the producers but it’s not theocratic.”

Briseid admits the pair made life tricky for themselves with the extra elements they implanted in the show’s structure, though they retained a deep respect for the procedural format at all times.

“There are many choices in every episode that have been made,” Eriksen says. “Are you going to be an open-ended thriller? Or are you going to be closed? When are we going to know who the murderer is? Is it a crime story that tells a story about the murder, or the investigator? That creates some friction. Either you make a show about the detective or the murderer.

The drama debuts on Norwegian pubcaster NRK this Sunday

“Mostly the show has to find a rhythm of its own, and our show is not about the killer. It’s about the murder, not the murderer, and how you find him or her. We have 45 to 50 minutes per episode, and in the US you have to do it in 42 minutes. That gives us way more space. I have tremendous respect for people who have to do it in 42. The natural way of experiencing murder-mystery is in 70 to 90 minutes, so to get it down to 50 or 45, there are a lot of choices you have to make. You have to trust those choices and make it fun.”

For Life isn’t alone in mixing up style and structure, with other Norwegian shows such as Norsemen, Witch Hunt, Beforeigners, State of Happiness and Twin also pushing the boundaries of TV drama and ensuring Norwegian content has plenty to offer viewers around the world. But what they have in common is that they seek to tell local stories with global appeal.

“The competition from other [international] storytellers is massive and either you produce Norwegian content that can compete or you die,” Eriksen notes. “NRK, [Norwegian terrestrial channel] TV2 and [Scandi streamer] Viaplay know if they’re going to survive, they have to make their own content.

“A big factor in the way public broadcasters will survive the next 15 years is drama. That’s not my words, that’s the public broadcaster. If you look at 22 July, Nobel, Shame, Acquitted and Witch Hunt, they’re pushing quality in the right direction.”

“Every European country is feeling the heat,” Briseid adds. “Everybody has the pressure of Netflix and Disney, so local broadcasters are thinking about their local-language originals. It’s just that it started earlier with us. I’m curious to see where the next wave will come from. I’m hoping it stays with Norway and the Nordics, but I’m curious to see which European country will start breaking out.

“Look at the potential of a country like Italy, France or Germany. We are going into production with a German partner, and that didn’t happen five years ago. It’s great to see how the audience internationally is getting used to watching things that are subtitled, and I’m wondering where the next great shows will come from, because they can come from anywhere. There are endless stories out there.”

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