When an infant disappears, his mother, a policewoman and a nurse become embroiled in a case that has far-reaching consequences. Writer Mette Heeno, director Anna Zackrisson and producer Georgie Mathew tell DQ about Swedish thriller Snöänglar (Snow Angels).
As the coronavirus pandemic caused most of Europe to shut down in spring 2020, one country took a different path. Sweden’s government controversially opted against a full lockdown and instead imposed a range of other restrictions that allowed people to continue largely as normal, a policy that continues today.
For TV productions, that meant filming could continue throughout the crisis, with one series, Snöänglar (Snow Angels), completing an 80-day shoot while working as safely as possible to avoid anyone contracting the virus. It also meant the production team could never be sure which shooting locations would be available on a day-to-day basis.
The series, which has its world premiere today as part of Berlinale Series, opens with the disappearance of five-week-old Lukas, with the story then revolving around his mother Jenni (Josefin Asplund, picture above left), investigating police officer Alice (Eva Melander) and nurse Maria (Maria Rossing), who had previously raised concerns over Lukas’s safety. Described as blend of drama and thriller, the six-part series tackles themes of motherhood, family, secrets and relationships as viewers discover more about the characters and the fate of the missing child.
“We start from the perspective of Jenni and her little family, and her waking up on Christmas Day realising her baby has gone missing,” creator and writer Mette Heeno tells DQ. “Then we follow her struggle, trying to find both the baby and her husband, and then slowly we connect the other characters. Jenni comes from a small suburb in Stockholm and she lives very close to her mother. They have a rather strange relationship. She’s had a very rough childhood. Then we introduce the policewoman who gets involved in the case, Alice, and the Danish nurse who has had concerns about the child’s wellbeing.”
Heeno’s previous credits include Bedre skill end aldrig (Splitting Up Together), in which a married couple decide to split up but continue to share a home, taking it in turns to parent their two children in the house while the other person lives in the basement. Snow Angels takes the theme of family to a new extreme, avoiding a traditional relationship drama and instead bringing in elements of the crime and thriller genres.
“Because the theme of motherhood is so strong in this show, and how other people judge women who become pregnant, how you judge yourself and how hard it can be to suddenly have another person growing inside of you, I thought the worst starting point for a story like this would be what happens if you wake up and can’t find your child,” Heeno says. “Then we realise later that these characters are all connected and all have strong opinions about motherhood and family. I’ve worked with the theme before, but not in this structure and not in this genre.”
The crime strand of the story is very much in the background of the series, however, as Heeno puts the focus squarely on the characters. After Lukas goes missing in episode one, episodes two and three take viewers back to before his disappearance to reveal more about Jenni and her husband Salle (Ardalan Esmaili).
“We show the backstory of the characters and then reveal something else about them that hopefully gives them a lot more nuance, and they become more and more relatable,” Heeno notes. “In that manner, the show is very much a puzzle of character.”
The development of Snow Angels dates back to 2018, when Heeno won the Drama Pitch competition at that year’s International Drama Summit during C21 Media’s Content London conference. From there, she met producer Georgie Mathew from Stockholm-based Yellow Bird (Young Wallander, Rebecka Martinsson) and they developed the story together with Swedish public broadcaster SVT before director Anna Zackrisson (White Wall, The Restaurant) signed on to helm the series six months later.
“It was something we hadn’t really seen at Yellow Bird,” Mathew says. “That was what attracted me. We very seldom think [about whether something fits] the Yellow Bird ‘brand.’ We’re just looking for really strong stories from really strong creators. Hearing about it even before Content London and then hearing the pitch, it was clear to us that this was a project and creator we had to work with. When you first read that script, the characters are just so amazingly played out and portrayed. It was not a question of whether this could fit, it was just, ‘Let’s just do it however it fits.’”
In contrast, Zackrisson admits she was slightly hesitant about taking on a crime story about a missing child and trying to make it entertaining. But like Mathew, she was “hooked” as soon as she read the script.
“I had never read a script that had this many complex female characters – the three main characters and three or four big female characters around them,” she says. “They all seemed to be real and they all seemed very complex and both bad and good. It’s a cliché, that thing where you always want people not to be bad or good, just circumstantial, but it really had that quality. Then I also fell in love with this couple, Jenni and Salle.”
The director felt very strongly that, if she was going to do a crime show, it shouldn’t just be a case of a crime taking place and then following the subsequent investigation to its conclusion.
“Here, we actually follow all the people through the story. There was lots to dig into. Then there was a bit of a challenge because, even if Sweden and Denmark are very much alike, they’re also culturally a little bit different. We had a few discussions on this, but we had a great time. We [decided] straight away that Mette would be the constructor and writer, and I would do what I do well, which is being on set. We really listened to each other and it worked very fluently.”
With Snow Angels backed by SVT, which will launch the series locally on March 28, Heeno says she enjoyed creative freedom to take the story where she wanted. Danish pubcaster DR, coproducer Happy Ending Film and distributor Reinvent International Sales later also joined the project, which Heeno says was conceived from the outset as a limited six-part series – something she says was a big help when writing the scripts.
“I started with the storyline in the first episode, but I didn’t know at that time that I was going to write it backwards and forwards,” she says. “But since the characters were more interesting to me, I got really bored when they just started looking for the child because there would just be police officers and dogs and police stations.
“I thought the most interesting part is actually what happens before they lose this child. What does the child mean to them? What is the world around them? Who are the other characters? How does this incident actually change them and who are they becoming? That development brings us back in time in episodes two and three, and then in episodes four, five and six there are flashbacks to episode one and what really happened the night the child disappeared. It was a huge puzzle.
“I storylined the episodes and then printed them out, put them on the floor and just walked around the story, taking plot points and putting them in different episodes to work out the story. My brain was really imploding at one point, and then when I started working with Anna, I could have killed her when she found plot holes!”
As a director, Zackrisson puts her energy into creating the world of the story alongside her DOP and the production designer, so that when filming begins, she can capture the actors in a 360-degree space and isn’t limited by sets or locations. As filming is about to begin, she likes to spend time talking to the actors about their characters.
“There’s so much we know about these characters that you never see, and there are so many difficult scenes we had to do in this show,” she says. “We rehearse maybe 10 or 15 times and talk back and forth about different ways of approaching it so that when you do it, it just comes fluently because the actors know so much about where they’re coming from.
“It was a big thing to give everyone so much more backstory, and Mette works this way a lot as well. She has a lot of backstory in her scripts, which I love. The end result was that we actually took out a lot of the backstory scenes because we portrayed what was going on inside these people in other scenes. But then I let the actors go too. It’s not up to me to tell them exactly what to do; they need to find their way. I find that if you choose the right people and do the the work prior to shooting, you should just let them let them work while you’re shooting.”
Filming was then complicated by the pandemic, with Mathew running a coronavirus department within the production office to tackle any problems as they arose. “It was a super challenging time for us all,” he says. “But we were in a bubble because we started off before this happened. That was good for us because we could shield ourselves. But we didn’t have any major catastrophes due to the pandemic, which we are super happy about.”
Some difficulties were unavoidable, such as no longer being able to shoot inside working hospitals, while the production also took the decision not to shoot for with real babies for a certain period of time. “We had to find some creative solutions in different scenes,” Mathew notes.
The production was also able to pick up scenes set in Jenni and Salle’s apartment on location in the Stockholm suburb of Varberg if other locations suddenly fell off the schedule.
“There were almost always things we could do if someone fell ill, but no one actually got Covid so no one had to be away for a long time,” Zackrisson says. “It was just other things that happened. Something strange also happened on set, because every day you were thinking, ‘Maybe today’s the last day.’ So you had this adrenaline feeling every day, and that went on for all 80 days. Then, all of a sudden, we had done it. It was really strange.”
Heeno also had to move some scenes from inside the police station to outdoor settings such as a car park, but she says those changes also sharpened the storytelling, as she was able to integrate some of the show’s exposition into other conversations.
“Anna didn’t want to do traditional police scenes and we wanted all the information you have to have in a police case to be planted in a familiar place, like with two people talking in a car,” the writer says. “A couple of the scenes that I rewrote became better because we took the information we needed and put it somewhere else. It made it more smooth, actually.”
Mathew believes Heeno and Zackrisson have boldly created a series featuring real people with relatable problems in an identifiable world. “That, together with a quest, a drive and a very exciting structure, is what is going to make the show a success,” he says. “We have ended up in a nice place with it and I hope to do it again sometime.”
What stands out for Heeno is the fact Snow Angels is a show in which every character is both hero and villain and has the power to evoke audience sympathy, crediting Zackrisson’s work with the actors for bringing that to the screen.
“When you have dark subjects like this, it’s very important you love the characters and that there’s also light and dreams,” the director says. “The first episode crashes into someone waking up missing a baby and then it just evolves, it twists and turns. Then when you begin episode two, you start realising that it might not really be what you thought.
“Mette and I kept saying to each other that when you start episode two, it’s not about answering what happened in episode one, but about how we keep viewers asking questions about these people. That was then the driving force throughout the six episodes.”