No kidding around

No kidding around

By Michael Pickard
January 27, 2023

The Writers Room

Kenneth Karlstad tells DQ how he drew on his own life as the inspiration for arresting Norwegian drama Kids in Crime and why he used VHS cameras to add a new perspective to the story.

From the opening moments of Norwegian drama Kids in Crime, writer and director Kenneth Karlstad transports viewers back to the early 2000s with a visual and aural assault with strobe lighting, fast-paced editing and the repetitive beats of a techno soundtrack.

It’s a stylistic choice that never lets up. Even when the story begins, the conventional camerawork is often replaced with, and juxtaposed by, grainy, handheld VHS footage that puts viewers in the middle of the hedonistic, chaotic and often violent action. The use of 90s hard house music only serves to heighten those heart-racing moments.

Set in 2001, the eight-part series centres on 17-year-old Tommy, whose soccer career ends before it started when he suffers a knee injury. His focus then shifts to his only other interest, violence, as he reconnects with childhood friend and drug dealer Pål Pot and becomes a trusted lieutenant of local kingpin Freddy Hell.

To escape the watchful eye of his suspicious parents, Tommy moves in with Pål, but more trouble comes their way with the arrival of party girl Monica, Freddy’s ex-girlfriend. Soon, Tommy is forced to choose between his friends and his new career in crime.

A fast-paced YA story about friendship, love and youth, but wrapped in humour and violence, Kids in Crime is filmmaker Karlstad’s first television series after starting out making short films. Despite considering himself first and foremost as a director, he also decided to write the show with Audun Fagervold Hansens, as the story – and Tommy in particular – is largely based on his own teenage years.

Kristian Repshus plays Tommy, whose story is based on Karlstad’s youth

“What happens to him is exactly what happened to me,” Karlstad tells DQ. “I was doing sports and activities; I was a really restless kid. Then I got injured and the doctor said all you can do is play golf or go for long hikes, and that wasn’t very satisfying for me to hear at the age of 18. Then we were at a schoolyard in the evenings and it was fun to hang out with people who pushed boundaries and were petty criminals, so I wanted to become one of them.”

Though it was “fun for a while,” he withdrew himself when things “started getting darker” and his friends began turning to heavier drugs and more serious crime. “Our group of friends were splitting up and starting to fight one another, and it wasn’t fun for me so I got out,” he continues. “It was just four or five years of thrill-seeking in an environment that was very violent and criminal. So [the series is] based on myself and my friends.”

Another reason why he wanted to write the series himself was to ensure it had the particular tone he was looking for – one that is shocking and dramatic yet also laced with humour.

“We have the seriousness of what that period means to us, but it’s also fun to talk about because so many crazy things happened,” he explains. “I knew if I wrote it myself I could put humour in it as well without it being offensive, because I’m just telling my own story. I see myself more as an auteur director instead of just a director.”

Hansens, a carpenter, is a friend of Karlstad from childhood. He supported the writing process with his own memories of that specific place and time in their lives, and the characters they met along the way.

Jakob Oftebro as crime kingpin Freddy Hell

“We had Post-It notes with the big events written down, so we had some kind of structure, and then I took three months to write a 10-page synopsis for the whole season,” Karlstad says of their writing process together. “When we went into hands-on screenwriting, I just said to Audun, ‘We need a scene where this and this happens, can you write something?’ He would write a document and then I turned that into a script. It was very much back and forth.

“He had a lot of funny ideas when it came to dialogue. It was a fun process trying to give him specific scenes we needed and letting him write freely, and then filtering it and building upon what he wrote. It took four months to write the eight episodes, so it was very fast. We didn’t have time to think about it, we just had to write it.”

Produced by Einar Films Norway for local broadcaster TV2 and distributed by Federation Studios, the series launched in November last year, little more than 12 months after Karlstad got the green light. It meant the development and production process reflected the frenetic nature of the finished series as, despite the quick turnaround time, “it was supposed to be rowdy, it was supposed to be dirty, so it worked out,” he says.

The stylistic choices that make Kids in Crime stand out from anything else on television – from the use of different types of cameras to the pulsating soundtrack – were all in the script from the beginning, though Karlstad hadn’t originally intended to use quite so much of the footage recorded on VHS cameras.

In the end, he estimates about 50% of the footage in the show was shot on the older film format, which he believes injects some much-needed energy into the look and feel of the series.

The series is produced by Einar Films Norway for local broadcaster TV2

“When we shot on VHS, everyone was like, ‘What the fuck’s happening?’ They felt like they saw something real or almost illegal, like a snuff tape,” he says. “When we felt that energy, me and my photographer said we needed to use it a lot more than just what it said in the script. But we didn’t know how the channel would react to us using VHS that much.”

TV2 were happy with the use of VHS-recorded footage, but asked Karlstad to outline how and when the story would move between formats. “But I said straightaway, ‘That’s not what we’re going to do because we don’t want to have any idea. We can do whatever we want because that’s the energy we need in the project,’” he recalls. “I managed to convince them with that. I also thought maybe they would want to edit out most of the gnarly stuff and most of the drug use, but they just wanted more of that stuff, so they’ve been on our side most of the time.”

The idea behind using VHS recordings in the first place came from the director wanting to put a cartoonish spin on the heavy subject matter that otherwise features in the story. If viewers were going to watch “eight episodes of darkness,” he knew there needed to be some levity in places, and he found it by contrasting the video footage with that shot on modern 4K cameras.

“If you think of scenes where we have a wide lens perspective, I wanted to contrast that with a cartoonish world in the VHS,” he says. “It’s almost like humour versus seriousness, their perspective versus reality. But when you shoot on VHS, you’re back in that time right away.

“I wanted it to work as something very unpredictable and almost like you were watching something real. It’s easy to make nice shots, so it’s more fun to go against that and make something that feels more impulsive. The whole idea was to create a dynamic tone for the series.”

Karlstad has plotted out a three-season arc

The soundtrack was also planned from the start, with Karlstad revealing that he first found his way into the film industry through his desire to make music videos. Since then, he has developed a musical approach to filmmaking, first making a playlist of particular songs and using them to steer his ideas.

“It’s very much music driven,” he says of his work. “That’s why every song is in the script, and it needs to be that song. The music is to set the time [of the series] but I was busy finding tracks that were not obvious Y2K tracks. Some of them are not even published, they’re on old mix tapes, so I wanted to dig into the archives and not just use the usual songs like Darude’s Sandstorm.”

Though the quick timeframe for making the series proved to be the biggest hurdle facing the production of Kids in Crime, Karlstad says his own lack of TV writing experience – and his partnership with a writer from a non-television background – meant he was largely learning on the job. “I was just sitting with all the scriptwriting books and reading a lot of literature while I was writing it,” he says. “It’s my first longform project, so it was a big challenge to map out the plot points and all the technical stuff, but writing scenes is fun for me because I’m good at building tension and writing dialogue. The whole plotting thing is still challenging.”

Now, as he awaits word on a potential second season – he has a three-season story arc in mind – Karlstad says he has learned a lot about invoking sympathy and empathy for characters even when they’re not particularly likeable.

“My idea is that as long as you have a character who makes a lot of stuff happen, that’s interesting to watch because you want to see what he or she will do next,” he says. “I don’t care so much about likeability or empathy at first, I just want to see a character who will make things happen. Tommy makes a lot of immoral choices but he makes stuff happen. That’s my main goal – just to have a character who just stirs up shit.”

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