Lighting the fuse
In Swedish series Gaslight, writer-director Therese Lundberg explores the story of a young woman who is drawn into a dangerous relationship. She tells DQ about the origins of the series, creating trust on set and her ambition to shine a light on stories that need to be told.
In her first original series, Dör för Dig (Die for You), writer-director Therese Lundberg explored the fallout from a violent relationship shared between two teenagers at high schools.
The series went on to be nominated for best youth drama at Sweden’s prestigious Kristallen Awards. Now with her latest project, Lundberg has sought to bring similar themes to a broader audience with SVT drama Gaslight.
The psychological drama stars Julia Heveus as Nora, whose flirtation with Simon (Jankovic Adam) begins as harmless fun but soon leads her into a dangerous and violent relationship. It is produced by SVT Malmö and Art & Bob Television for SVT Play.
Here, Lundberg tells DQ about her ambition to shine a spotlight on abusive relationships and how she brought together the themes of the series on the page and on set.
Please introduce the story of Gaslight.
It’s a psychological drama about manipulation, violence and seductive love. When Nora’s plans for the future are suddenly thrown out of whack and nothing goes her way, she also meets her great crush. But their rosy relationship soon turns into a destructive spiral where her entire survival is at stake.
What were the origins of the project? Are there any similarities to your previous work?
I previously did a series called Die for You, aimed at high school students. It took up the topic of violence in young relationships, was widely distributed and was also nominated for best youth drama. Here I saw that the need [for these kinds of stories] was great and that the knowledge of these relationships is unfortunately little or associated with so much shame and guilt. It later became the basis for wanting to make a drama series that reached out more broadly within the same subject.
Why were you interested in talking about the themes in the series?
The topic of violence in a close relationship is often portrayed with physical violence. For me, it has been important to try to portray the psychological and sexual violence. Psychological violence is difficult to deal with and also to prove. But being exposed to power, control and manipulation can destroy a person’s life. We also need to understand that these people who put their partners through this are not constantly horrible. They are warm, loving, caring and then completely swing to become your worst nightmare. Through manipulation, they also make the victim stop trusting herself, her gut and inner compass. They turn everything around so that the victim believes that it is their fault, that they have become mentally ill and that they themselves are to blame for being exposed to the violence that the perpetrator exerts.
Through Gaslight, I wanted to show how a relationship like this starts and how it slowly changes into something terrible. I also want to give some form of redress to everyone who has been in this type of relationship and say, “It’s not your fault! You did everything you could to survive, but the shame and guilt is not yours to bear!”
How would you describe Nora when we meet her?
Nora is a 22-year-old who is self-confident, outgoing and funny. But she is also a little lost, as so many are at that age, parties a lot and dreams of getting into the education she applied for and of being very much in love and also loved.
And how do we follow her through the series?
When Nora later meets Simon, she falls deeply in love, feels seen in a way she has never experienced before and creates a bond with him that is among the finest she has known. When Simon later begins to subject Nora to psychological and sexual violence, she does not understand what is happening and here she slowly begins to break down to be just a thin shell at the end.
How did you develop the series with SVT?
I worked closely with SVT throughout the process and had an executive producer who was well versed in the subject. It has, of course, made things easier and our work together has been hugely rewarding where there has also been a great deal of trust.
Why do you like to write and direct your projects – is there an auteur style to your work?
For me, it is important to be involved throughout the entire process, from idea, script, direction and also in post-production. I want to set the tone in the script, develop it during recording and then feel the whole material when the final product is created. Since I am involved throughout the process, I also own the vision, which makes it so much easier to make decisions on the spot. For me, it is a whole to create. Form, feeling, imagery, tone, music – everything is connected and for me every part is equally important.
How would you describe your writing process – and is it impacted by your dual role as a director?
I write two hours every day. The rest of the time I process. But during those two hours I write constantly. It’s like I step into that world and only describe what I see, hear and am involved in. For me, it is important that it feels genuine and real. Of course, I have an idea with me already in the script so that this will later work on set. Since I already step into that world in the script, it then becomes easier to direct the scenes.
Does the show have a particular visual style? How did you achieve it?
Setting a shape for Gaslight was incredibly important. Coming from a background of making documentaries and reality, I wanted to incorporate that feeling and form to make it feel authentic. I work a lot with a moving camera, one takes, close-ups and constantly conveying the feeling through the form. How can we enhance the feeling in this scene? How can we get under the skin of the viewer? That is what I want to create with the picture. But I also want to work with natural lighting and a colour scale that goes through costume, scenography and grade. Setting everything like that from the start is incredibly important and, of course, working with a professional and kind team.
How did you want to portray the abusive relationship in the series?
I wanted to focus on the psychological violence, the one that doesn’t leave bruises but tears the soul apart. But I also wanted to show the sexual violence and portray the feeling of a rape, rather than showing the abuse itself. There are so many people who don’t understand that rape can happen in a relationship, and it is so important that we start talking about it so that people understand what they are exposed to or expose their partner to. You do not have the right to have sex with your partner just because you are in a relationship. It is still consent that applies.
How do you like to work with your actors, and particularly with Julia Heveus on Gaslight?
For me, the most important thing is to create security and trust between me and the actors. To get to know each other and make them dare to give their all because they know it will land smoothly. The work with Julia has been a lot of talking about how Nora feels, acts and why she does it. Julia has been fantastic to work with.
What challenges did you face in the making of the drama – and how did you overcome them?
Of course, it has been challenging to record such strong scenes with a lot of violence. The whole team is affected, and it is so important that there is a sense of security in being able to feel and reflect on what we are involved in. We have offered everyone the opportunity to talk to a psychologist during and after recording.
You wanted viewers to be shocked and absorbed by the series. How did you do this?
I can never decide what the viewer should feel. But I hope through the way Gaslight is written, directed and shot to create an understanding of how horrible these relationships are. To start talking to each other, to see if someone is being victimised and know that there is help to be had.
Why might the series appeal to international audiences?
This problem is universal. It exists in all social classes, all countries and every fourth woman is exposed to violence in a close relationship during her lifetime. This problem concerns everyone, no matter where you live.
What are you working on next?
Right now, it is not clear. But I hope to continue telling strong stories that need to be told.