Out of time
DQ visits Oslo to find Vikings and people from the Stone Age and the 19th century wandering the streets of the Norwegian capital. It’s all part of the story of the first original drama from HBO Nordic, Beforeigners.
The Barcode area of Oslo takes its name from its row of flashy high-rise buildings, which appear as a series of vertical strips. Companies housed in the area, also known as the Opera Quarter, include multinationals PriceWaterhouseCoopers and Deloitte. It screams wealth and prosperity, and is certainly not used to mess tainting its near-sparkling streets.
For HBO Europe’s Norwegian drama Beforeigners, however, the upmarket location has been transformed into a jumble of hay, live fowl and other farmyard animals, with wooden pallets carelessly strewn all around.
Sandwiched between an edgily designed apartment block and a fitness centre, Vikings are rubbing shoulders with women in 1800s-style bonnets and crinoline skirts, who themselves are sidestepping unkempt cavemen and livestock.
Greenlit by HBO Nordic last year, Beforeigners is the premium cablenet’s first Norwegian commission. The premise is simple: around the world, powerful flashes of light have appeared in the ocean, with people from the past – the Stone Age, the Viking era and the late 19th century – emerging as a result. No one can explain the phenomenon, while the anachronistic individuals – dubbed ‘Beforeigners’ – have no idea what’s happened.
A few years later, burnt-out police officer Lars Haaland, played by Nicolai Cleve Broch, is paired up with Viking Beforeigner Alfhildr (Krista Kosonen) as part of a police integration programme. Investigating the murder of a woman with Stone Age tattoos, the fractious pair make unexpected discoveries.
The series is a melting pot of genres, throwing in sci-fi, dystopian near-future, detective and comedic elements. Slapstick and incongruity were precisely what husband-and-wife writers Eilif Skodvin and Anne Bjørnstad – the duo behind Netflix’s Nordic mob comedy original Lilyhammer – wanted from the show.
“A simple theme is identity. We all look for a place to belong. What is your identity made up of? Is it your past or present? Is it the way you dress, the way you speak, your memories, your friends? This is a central theme, but it’s something that comes out of the stories. It’s not like we wanted to explore it [from the outset] – the theme is constantly evolving,” Bjørnstad explains.
“We’re not the type of writers who have an agenda,” says Skodvin. “For us, it’s just as important, or even more important, to have the idea of a sprawling universe. This is going to be a fun show; it’s a great sci-fi image of Stone Age, Medieval and 19th century people wandering the streets, and we have a little crime story within it. The fun and excitement of that idea can’t be separated from it, but you need to touch on some contemporary issues and have some meaning in it. If it doesn’t have substance, you run out of steam quite fast.”
The humour in Beforeigners is noticeable even before a camera has started rolling. A glance at the production notes for the day’s filming reveals one shot as “a blind Beforeigner sits eating a Popsicle and petting his dog,” a three-legged Pomeranian called Skrubb that belongs to producer Terje Strømstad. Next to the bedraggled Beforeigner, the tiny Skrubb looks particularly out of place.
Strømstad says this part of town has become “the ghetto of Oslo” in the drama, another irony, because it was originally meant to be the prestigious luxury accommodation spot before the electrical reaction to the Beforeigners’ arrival shorted the power in the district.
Director Jens Lien (The Bothersome Man) is having an impassioned discussion with his producers and director of photography Philip Øgaard about the specific height of some of the pallets the Beforeigners are sitting on. A lot of thought is being given to the extras before speaking cast members Cleve Broch and Ylva Bjørkås Thedin, who plays Lars’ daughter Ingrid, take their part in the scene.
“We have to be very focused on shooting very specific things; it has to work. So the biggest challenge is, maybe a little bit boring, but just making it work. You’re working on new ground all the time. It’s a new genre. How do you work out what a Stone Age guy looks like?” Lien says. “The good thing with the Stone Age is nobody knows [what it was really like]. No one knows how they sounded. So we have a bit of free rein.”
Hanne Palmquist, executive producer on the series and commissioning editor and VP of original programming at HBO Nordic, says the fantastical universe that Beforeigners proposes lives up to the high-concept benchmark set by other HBO dramas. Like Bjørnstad and Skodvin, she cites previous US HBO series like The Leftovers and True Blood as having a similar feel.
“Authenticity is a key value for HBO. It looks like such a wild idea on paper, but Eilif and Anne came to my office and told me about this world and how it unfolded. A big and valid question was, ‘Will we ever believe in it?’” she says. “The reason you believe in it has a lot to do with Jens’ take on it. There’s humour and humanity but it’s a serious story.”
On the day DQ visits the set, it is mild and overcast with a hint of blue sky threatening to emerge as the crew set up – conditions Strømstad says are ideal for the autumnal period in which this scene takes place. Although Beforeigners is set and mostly shot in Norway, the cast and crew spent around four weeks filming internal shots in Lithuania for reasons relating to capacity. Many projects were shooting at the same time in Norway, resulting in a lack of qualified crew for the art department.
“The big problem is we have to create a universe. I would have liked it to have been this big,” Øgaard notes, stretching his arms wide, “but because of different things such as money, [it’s difficult]. But it’s my problem and my job [to find a solution]. You have to build up the contrast of the different eras as much as you can. We’ve done that in different places. We did a big scene in this cancer hospital, which is very modern, and you see these strange people in that environment. That contrast is fantastic.
“We’ve done some beautiful shots with the main characters with costumes that looked like animals. When you see them from behind, it looks like a wolf walking around this modern setting. It’s very funny, and it was nice to play with that.”
CGI will be used to “manipulate” external scenes and make them “much more worn down,” he notes, with the aim being to achieve as much authenticity as possible. For costume designer Louize Nissen, the authenticity drive has caused a bit of a headache, with the constant mixing of costumes from different eras proving “difficult every day.”
“Do we use a red cape or a gold cape? How do we give them a costume that looks authentic but doesn’t look like we’re just giving them a funny hat and sticking them in front of a camera?” Nissen says as she tends to one of the 19th century characters.
The combination is striking. Among a group of Stone Age children, some are wearing pelts as ponchos, while others are decked out in the tracksuits the Beforeigners receive as part of a “starter pack.” A band of Vikings sporting thick beards and wearing capes are also walking through the shot, 21st century trainers poking out from underneath. Descriptions of other shots to be filmed on the day include “a man blowing into a Ram’s horn (from his window)” and “Stone Age kids learn to ride bikes,” with each given their own filming plan in the schedule.
“When we’re seeing the dailies, it’s like a firework every time,” says Palmquist. “One day you’re in Viking land and the next you’re having Bohemian conversations with well-educated Victorian people – that crazy mix. It is the world as we know it but a special and unique world. It’s more colourful than I would ever have thought.”
The meticulousness mirrors the protracted writing process Bjørnstad and Skodvin went through to create Beforeigners. Though they had both known for a while that they wanted to do a premium sci-fi show, piecing together something meaningful and visually engaging was not an easy task, even with their experience.
“For shows that don’t work, it’s very often because the idea’s not there. It’s so difficult to come up with good ideas,” Skodvin says. “We always talk about ideas ourselves and sometimes [with] other writers, and we’ve talked about many bad ideas. We probably have about 100 horrible science-fiction shows we could tell you about because [it’s such a broad genre] – how about aliens here, or robots there?
“What you’re looking for in a genre show is a different world and something beautiful, but often it becomes silly and you haven’t got any connection with the real world. In the type of sci-fi show we’re doing here, a near-future show, it has to resonate. You’re waiting for that moment when you think, ‘This can connect to real experiences.’”
After careful planning, it was Skodvin who eventually put the words on paper. Outlining the duo’s writing process, he jokes: “Anne slaughters it, then I cry, then she comforts me.”
The intention was for the drama to explore the effects a surge of time-travelling refugees from the past has on society, with an eye on offering a critique of European countries’ varying responses to the influx of refugees over the past few years by offering a positive view of cultural integration.
“It’s that picture of society; of the excitement of the different individuals who have arrived with totally different backgrounds and are co-existing with us; of the different problems and qualities they bring to our time. It’s an exciting image,” says Skodvin.
Buddy-cop drama convention dictates that no seasoned officer can ever like their new partner immediately. Combine this with a wariness of the Beforeigners and it seems fair to assume “burnt out” Lars would be unfriendly and impatient with Alfhildr and her fellow time travellers – but Cleve Broch says this isn’t quite the case with his character.
“He’s a good guy in that way, he’s just exhausted because he’s been overloaded with work for so many years and in his department they don’t have any time or money,” the actor tells DQ. “He’s insecure. He doesn’t really know what to say. His back aches and everything hurts a little bit, everything’s a bit difficult. He’s got too many feelings, he’s too sensitive.”
Kosonen says the duo bounce off each other well, in keeping with the show’s “satirical, political and funny” tenor.
“I did tell Nicolai when we were in the car that Vikings only bathe once a week so you can feel my presence!” she jokes. “Alfhildr has no subtext. I think of her as a very straightforward person. Before I talked to Viking experts, I thought Vikings were roaring people, having sex and fighting all the time, but actually they were very organised. They had a strong hierarchy and were very honest, and I try to think about that with my character. She’s very sincere and honest, whereas Nicolai’s very gloomy.”
Outside of Cleve Broch and Kosonen, the cast is mainly made up of a combination of unheralded actors from Finland, Iceland and Norway, with a total of 120 characters in the production.
“Complexity in the story is also kind of reflected in the cast,” Palmquist says. “We had the opportunity to look for faces that were partly known to a Norwegian audience but also some that weren’t. The fact that two quite big roles are female Vikings, maybe it would be harder to buy if they were well-known Norwegian actresses. The show gave us the opportunity to go out and search for talented actors.”
Beforeigners is clearly a work of contrasts and tangents, a patchwork drama that will defy being pigeon-holed as any single genre. And while broad themes are recognisable, Bjørnstad and Skodvin want to upend tradition.
“How do other writers write the same stories again and again?” Skodvin wonders. “You need that attraction of an exciting new universe.”
In an era of infinite but often unoriginal dramas, it’s a good place to start.