Danish star Sofie Grãbøl, writer Kim Fupz Aakeson and directors Frederik Louis Hviid and Michael Noer reveal how filming inside a real disused prison helped to inform the authenticity and truth behind six-part drama Huset (Prisoner).
The opening of Denmark’s Stormstrøm prison in 2017 heralded a new way of looking after inmates by locking them up in a modern, more humanistic jail that was designed – practically and philosophically – to reduce reoffending.
It also led to the subsequent closure of Vridsløselille prison in Albertslund, on the outskirts of Copenhagen, the following year – a move that would prompt the development of Danish pubcaster DR’s latest hard-hitting drama.
Huset (The House), which will have the international title Prisoner, centres on four prison guard colleagues at a dilapidated Danish prison known as The House. Sammi (Youssef Wayne Hvidtfeldt), Henrik (David Dencik), Miriam (Sofie Gråbøl) and Gert (Charlotte Fich) work in an environment that could easily be rough and hostile, yet both they and the powerful inmates they support live in relative harmony by following a rulebook that subverts the official code of conduct.
But when the prison is threatened with closure, management demands zero tolerance and launches a campaign that has dire consequences for inmates and guards alike.
At the same time, the lives of the four officers outside the prison walls are found to be full of conflict, loneliness and secrets – which will soon impact those inside and outside the prison’s walls.
Huset was created by Kim Fupz Aakeson (Bankerot) in close collaboration with directors Frederik Louis Hviid (Bedrag) and Michael Noer (Papillon), and is described by DR fiction head Henriette Marienlund as a show that “goes to the edge in terms of creating a raw environment and providing insight into a world that few people know.”
It was that idea of entering a “secret place in society” that most appealed to Aakeson when he started to develop the series.
“It might be a bikers’ club, a group of very rich people – there are a lot of secret places, and prison is obviously one of them,” he tells DQ. The writer had previously partnered with Annette K Olesen to write 2004 prison film Forbrydelser (In Your Hands), which starred Ann Elenora Jørgensen and Trine Dyrholm as a rookie chaplain in a women’s prison and an inmate who claims to perform miracles.
“We shot it in Nyborg state prison and it was about the inmates, but I started looking at the guards, because who takes that job? Who walks unarmed into such a hostile environment every day?” Aakeson continues.
“When we realised there was an empty prison [Vridsløselille], because they built a new one and were going to tear it down, it was like, ‘Let’s hurry and do something,’ because the hard part of making prison movies is finding the prison.
“Suddenly, there was a complete prison in our hands. We knew from the beginning we were going to go into their private lives and working lives, and we felt it was good every time in our discussions where private life and working life clashed. So it gets more and more muddy for them to separate the two during the show.”
No character or story point was out of bounds as Aakeson worked with co-creators and directors Hviid and Noer in the trio’s self-styled “discussion room.” Hviid then constructed biographies of the main characters, utilising the research the production team had completed as well as numerous conversations with real prison guards. But with a shared ambition to make the series as realistic as possible, new information would often completely change the course of a character’s story arc or the overall plot line.
“We had to kill darlings, and new darlings came,” Hviid says.
“All the stories in prison, we picked up from the floor. They were there,” adds Aakeson. “I couldn’t make this stuff up. When you work in realism, you need to check out real life and be fair and square with it. It kills ideas and it gives you new ideas. If you don’t do it, you will just start mimicking other shows, and you need to have your own take on reality.
“Because the directors did so much work in research, that was the only way to go about it. Reality is much more interesting than what goes on in my head.”
The creative team were also conscious of – but not bowed by – the high number of prison-set series in recent years. British shows Time and Screw, US comedy-drama Orange is the New Black and fact-based series Escape at Dannemora, Spanish series Vis a Vis (Locked Up) and Australia’s Wentworth have all aired in the past decade.
“There are obviously many prison shows, just as there are police films, but every time you move it to a different location, every time you set it at a different time period, every time you bring in current political aspects, it changes and you’re able to tell new stories and new aspects, and show new sides of human beings and new sides of the society we live in,” Hviid notes.
“An environment such as a prison is so filled with human faith, drama and conflict, it’s really a very deep well in terms of inventing new stories and new characters because it’s so rich to begin with. I’d never seen a Danish prison show before. There’s been a Danish prison film made by this guy [Aakeson], which was really good. But that’s more or less it. Just putting it in a long format and making it as realistic and plausible as possible is already treading new ground.”
Filming the series, which had its world premiere at French television festival Canneseries earlier this year, the directors found the space inside Vridsløselille limiting – but those limits also gave them the creative freedom to continue playing with the style of the show across its six-episode run.
Importantly, it also created a discussion about how they would film events outside the prison in a way that contrasted what went on within its walls.
“I thought it was fun the way Frederik set up rules because every time I saw the dolly, to me it was like a dragon, just coming at me,” Noer jokes. “I really didn’t want to use that thing. But I had to, and I was thinking of Frederik every time I looked at the dolly. ‘Put it on the dolly.’
“It’s hard to make rules for a TV series about a divorce, but if you make rules in a series set within an environment of rules, I thought that was interesting. I will let other people judge, but one of the things we’ve succeeded in is mirroring the rules of the environment in the way it’s told. We all worked together to try to be authentic and stick to the rules as much as possible.”
So what were the rules? “We had some ground rules in terms of how we wanted the outside to be somewhere you can keep a lot of secrets,” Hviid reveals. “We wanted the prison to be something that was very lively, very organic, a difficult place to hide secrets. We wanted it to be violent and dangerous, with a lot of noise. And we wanted life outside to be the complete opposite – very dark, very cramped, filled with secrets, filled with personal tragedy, very slow, very quiet. How the dynamic of those two worlds would work when we put them together was something we were discussing a lot.”
On set, Gråbøl could get a clear sense of the differentiation between those two worlds beyond the physical location in which she found herself.
“In the outside scenes with the characters in their private lives, you really have the sense of quiet isolation. But in the prison, it was unpredictable,” she says. “We actors never knew where the camera was, so that also added to the feeling that you never know what’s going to happen. The camera is alert, and that generates a feeling for you as an audience.”
That feeling echoes the sentiments of one real prison officer who told Hviid that she felt more comfortable inside prison, where there was an element of structure and predictability, than outside, where she didn’t know who or what might be around the corner.
“That sense of imminent danger was something we really tried to put in the outside world,” he says.
Starring in Huset – which is produced by DR Drama and distributed by DR Sales – was “challenging, but in a good way,” says Gråbøl, who wanted to lean into the realism of the drama and put herself under pressure just like her character.
“This whole line of work and the world [of prisons] is something we think we all know about, but really we don’t,” she observes. “I’m curious to know what makes a person want this job. It’s so underpaid, so unappreciated, and there are way too few. The whole system is worn down – not only in Denmark, I’m sure. So how does a person keep their humanity, their empathy, in a line of work like this? For Miriam, you get the sense this has not been an easy job and it has come with a price, but she has somehow managed to keep her empathy alive, and she will be put under a lot of pressure.”
Hviid reveals that in one storyline, Miriam is torn by matters of the heart, but that’s not the only conflict she’s involved with.
“For the people in uniform, they have a very strong code of loyalty, the blue line,” Gråbøl notes. “Miriam is also in conflict with that because she keeps insisting on maintaining some kind of human outlook on the inmates, which the majority of them have lost. So she’s also in conflict with her colleagues. She’s a very lonely person.”
The actor wasn’t the only person putting themselves under pressure, with Hviid, Noer and Aakeson finding that being under the cosh helps to forge the best ideas. However, it cannot be overlooked how important filming in a real prison was to fostering the atmosphere they wanted for the show.
In fact, the production design utilised many of the ‘lived-in’ aspects of Vridsløselille, such as notes, messages and even threats etched on walls and doors, to build the realism of the series, which debuts in Denmark on DRTV on September 1 and DR1 on September 3.
“As we designed the prison, we made sure we kept all that authenticity within the prison. So when we filled it with our inmates and our guards, suddenly it just appeared as real,” Hviid says. “That was a gift for us. We could shoot in every direction and it felt authentic.
Many of the supporting artists playing background guards and inmates were also former real-life guards, while other first-time actors had experience of the prison system.
It made acting in the show “so easy,” Gråbøl says. “You just had constant gifts of atmosphere, of reality.”
“You can say prison cells are not built to keep your spirits up. I think all of us felt that throughout,” Hviid adds. “Because the ceilings are low, the walls are tight, light is hard and the atmosphere is just violent and dangerous, that crept under our skin, but in a good way. Hopefully you’ll be able to see that.”