Rise of the Faroes

Rise of the Faroes

By Michael Pickard
February 14, 2022

The Writers Room

As the first ever series filmed on the Faroe Islands, crime drama Trom promises to bring a new flavour to Scandinavian noir. DQ speaks to creator and writer Torfinnur Jákupsson.

When viewers tune in for crime drama Trom, it’s not an exaggeration to say they’ll be watching a small piece of television history. Created by screenwriter Torfinnur Jákupsson, the six-parter is the first TV series ever filmed in the Faroe Islands.

That might go some way to explain the extraordinary interest around the show, even when you consider the ongoing fascination with any scripted drama that emerges from Scandinavia. Trom debuted on Nordic streamer Viaplay yesterday and is being screened today as part of the Berlin International Film Festival’s Berlinale Series Market, while international buyers include ZDF in Germany, France’s Arte and the UK’s BBC.

“It’s the first series from the Faroe Islands, set in the Faroes, so that’s something new – it’s a bit of a historic achievement in itself,” Jákupsson tells DQ. “Also for me personally, this being my first series and the first real script I wrote, it’s been quite a journey as well.”

A crime story set against the backdrop of the luscious landscape of the Faroes and tackling topical environmental issues, the series is based on Faroese author Jógvan Isaksen’s novels featuring journalist and private investigator Hannis Martinsson.

Pulling together and updating elements from four of Isaksen’s books, the first of which was published more than 30 years ago, Trom opens when Hannis (Ulrich Thomsen) receives a video message from feminist and animal rights activist Sonja á Heyggi, who claims she is his daughter and that her life is in danger.

Torfinnur Jákupsson on location during filming for Trom

When Sonja seemingly vanishes, Hannis returns to his home town on the Faroe Islands to investigate – and is drawn into a search that uncovers connections between the local fishing industry, a high-profile activist group and the islands’ most prominent businessman, Ragna í Rong (Olaf Johannessen). Hannis’s presence also leads to conflict with the local police and DCI Karla Mohr (Maria Rich) as his search for answers unravels a web of lies and secrets in the local community.

Jákupsson first imagined a series set in the Faroes when he was about 16 years old, talking to his friend as they worked together at the fish factory in his home town of Gøta about how great it would be to have a local series that could emulate other Nordic dramas on TV.

“We were talking about the books by this famous author we both had grown up on and I was looking up at the mountaintop, where the first murder in the first book occurs in my home town,” the writer recalls. “That’s the first time I visualised the show or manifested it in my head. Then the coffee break was over and we went back to work.”

Fifteen years later, after spending a period working and studying in London, Jákupsson was about to turn 30 and decided this could be his last chance to turn those early flights of fantasy into reality.

“I decided to pack a suitcase, move back home and try to do something about it,” he says. “It was in 2018 that I went full time with it and dropped everything else. Since then, it’s taken about three years to reach the finish line, with Covid also setting the production back a year.”

In creating Trom, Jákupsson took inspiration from his love of films and series from all over the world. And though he says he didn’t set out to reinvent anything with the show, it is the quintessentially Faroese cultural elements that will make the series stand out from the crowd. That includes its unique approach to languages, where Faroese characters speak Faroese and understand Danish while the Danish characters speak Danish and understand Faroese, reflecting real life.

The series stars Ulrich Thomsen as journalist and private investigator Hannis Martinsson

“This might be lost in translation for many around the world when they see the show, but it is a new Nordic voice, so to speak. And for me as a Faroese writer, it’s incredibly important for our voice to be heard,” he says.

Naturally, the Faroese landscape itself plays an important role in the series, just as it does in Isaksen’s books. Jákupsson set out to have the islands, their nature and even the weather affect the characters and their psyche and not just provide a picturesque background.

“The small-town community of the Faroes plays a big part, for better or worse, as does the culture of silence both as a survival mechanism but also as something that could slowly choke you,” he says. “It plays on dramatic themes like that and looks at the Faroes as this untouched and uncharted territory from an international point of view.

“The Faroes are very friendly and one of the safest places in the world, but we’re bringing violent crime and murder into it, where things aren’t always as perfect as they might seem. I always felt the isolated island community of the Faroes was an interesting place to set a show like this, as the original books do.”

When Hannis is drawn back to the Faroes, he is both intrigued and sceptical about Sonja’s paternity claim. When she goes missing, he looks for clues in the video message she sent him on social media – an update from the handwritten letter in the books – and finds his way home, a journey that reflects Jákupsson’s own move home. But character development in the series is just as important as discovering what has happened to Sonja and why.

“If we take Hannis, even though he is faced with a life-changing dilemma, opening up still remains a struggle for him,” Jákupsson says. “He is very stubborn, solitary and a tough character to get to know in general. He doesn’t let many people behind his frontline defence.”

Maria Rich plays DCI Karla Mohr

Hannis is also a man of few words – another difference from the books, in which the first-person narrative allows readers to understand the character’s thoughts. In developing the series, one of Jákupsson’s first decisions was not to use a voiceover. Instead, viewers will learn more about Hannis through the skeletons in his closet and the people he meets when he returns to the Faroes, not least local industry pioneer Ragnar.

“So we do slowly get to know Hannis, but he remains a bit of a mystery and the lone-wolf journalist,” he says. “Suffice it to say, we leave Hannis and Ragnar with plenty more to come.”

To write the series, Jákupsson teamed up with co-writer Donna Sharpe (West of Liberty) for what he describes as a “free adaptation” of Isaksen’s source material. He wrote the pilot, a series bible and the overall template of the show, before producer and distributor Reinvent Studios identified the need to pair him with a more experienced partner.

Subsequently, Trom was fuelled by a multi-national writers room, with Jákupsson and Berlin-based British screenwriter Sharpe joined by Danish script editor Niels Fonseca.

“Having three people from three different cultures in our mini-writers room, sometimes it could be a challenge to explain my unique Faroese perspective, what happens in the Faroes and why and the historical and cultural reasons for specific things, and to some extent not let myself or the Faroese angle be undermined,” he says. “But it was also a very democratic process with good, open dialogue, which is key. We also looked at it critically and honed in on what really was the interesting part of the story and the characters.”

As not all of Isaksen’s books have been translated into English or Danish, Jákupsson was the guide into Hannis’s world. After a few initial development meetings, Jákupsson and Sharpe were also forced to work virtually because of the Covid-19 pandemic, breaking the story for each episode together and then giving notes on each other’s drafts.

The Faroe Islands’ dramatic landscapes are key to the show’s feel

Jákupsson was also the on-set writer in the Faroes when shooting started, completing several rewrites when, for example, specific locations became unavailable.

Filming the series in spring and summer 2021 became something of a national event in the Faroe Islands, while the Danish territory also introduced a tax rebate for the show as a test case for something more permanent in the future. Jákupsson says the locals were extremely excited by and supportive of the project, particularly when it came to opening up their homes to used by the production, as the budget didn’t allow much construction work beyond building the police station set.

However, he does describe some hesitation owing to some of the issues touched upon in the series, most notably the controversial topic of whaling. “But I wanted to tackle that subject head-on instead of shying away from it,” he says. A local whale hunt features early on in the story as Hannis discovers what has happened to Sonja.

“But whaling isn’t the main focus of the show. The environment and nature versus man and industry plays a bigger role. Overall, we’re very closely connected to nature in the Faroes so that’s an integral part of the story and its characters, who are pitted against each other.

“We wanted to have it [whaling] as a discussion within the show and not paint the argument too black and white. All things considered, you can agree with both sides of the argument and not just one of them, as they both have their merits.”

Filming took place across the archipelago, with notable locations including Gásadalur, home to the famous Múlafossur waterfall, the secluded village of Tjørnuvík and Lake Toftavatn, as well as the capital Tórshavn.

Trom has been picked up by European pubcasters ZDF, Arte and the BBC

Jákupsson agreed with directors Davíð Óskar Ólafsson (The Valhalla Murders) and Kasper Barfoed (Dicte) that Trom shouldn’t feel like typical Nordic noir. Instead, they wanted to instil a western feel that sits well with the seemingly vast Faroese landscape.

“Overall, the show is a bit brighter, a bit more colourful, than your typical Nordic noir,” he says. “But when I spoke to Davíð, we quickly agreed that as the story progresses and the characters get pushed further to the edge, the show should feel a bit darker and grittier. It was an interesting process for me as a creator and writer to let go of this baby of mine, so to speak, but also important for me to give Kasper and Davíð their freedom as directors and let them have the freedom to do what they thought the show should look and feel like as well.”

Flying in cast, crew and equipment proved to be a logistical challenge for the production at a time when there was an influx of pandemic-related travel restrictions. Some crew members were unable to fly and some characters had to be recast when actors couldn’t travel either. Those Danish and Faroese actors who do appear include Helena Heðinsdóttir, Mariann Hansen, Sissal Drews Hjaltalin, Hans Tórgarð, Gunnvá Zachariasen and Búi Dam.

“Everyone then had to isolate in the Faroes for about three months from their families, which can be challenging, but it also meant everyone became very closely connected and created a little Trom family for those three to four months of the production – and that created some memories for life,” says Jákupsson, who also created music for the series with his brother Ólavur Jákupsson. Notably, the main title theme uses elements of an old Faroese chain dance song called Kvæði, which dates back to the Middle Ages, and is just one example of how folk elements are used throughout to help set the Faroese tone of the show.

Beyond the crime story at the heart of Trom, it is that immersion into Faroese culture that will set the show apart from other series in the genre, with Trom rooting itself in a world governed by nature.

“When I was three, I almost drowned in the harbour in my home town,” Jákupsson reveals. “Ever since then, I’ve been fascinated by nature. In the Faroes, we depend on the sea; we live off the sea. But historically a lot of deaths have also occurred at sea, so it’s taken many lives. That contradiction inherent in the fact that what you rely on the most, your lifeline, can also be your deadliest threat has always been a very interesting concept to me.”

He also believes the series can be used to highlight a clash of cultures on the islands and as a way to talk about topics, such as whaling, that people may be afraid to discuss openly.

“If we can’t even talk about things properly, what are we even doing in the first place?” he says. “The Faroes is a small-town society that is rapidly changing and some would say coming under threat, partly from influence from abroad and partly through tourism. But we also need tourism as another leg to stand on economically. The series aims to pose a few questions you as a viewer can have your own opinion on, but hopefully we have created a compelling crime show with a modern environment angle that also functions as a relevant social commentary.”

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