Stranger than fiction
DQ visits Stockholm to lift the lid on a conspiracy theory-themed comedy drama that delves into one of Western politics’ biggest mysteries.
For many people, the reason crime fiction is so popular in Scandinavia – and subsequently why our screens have been dominated by Nordic noir in the past decade – can be traced back to one tragic event that took place back in the 1980s in Sweden.
The unresolved death of Olof Palme, the controversial but popular Swedish prime minister who was shot in the back at close range late at night on a central Stockholm street on February 28, 1986, still haunts the nation.
His assassination, and the fact no one has been found guilty of the crime, has been called “an open wound in Swedish society” by the country’s current prime minister, Stefan Löfven, with Swedes said to have developed a collective fascination with the pursuit of justice as a result.
For that reason, it’s perhaps surprising that the case is now the subject of six-part comedy drama We Got This!, which effectively asks the question: what if The Dude from The Big Lebowski investigated JFK’s assassination, but in Sweden?
Backed by the country’s public service broadcaster, SVT, and Nordic Entertainment Group-owned streamer Viaplay, the show’s controversial premise may result in some backlash from Swedes when it airs later in 2020. But if you were expecting that to translate into any uneasiness on the We Got This! set, that certainly wasn’t the case when DQ headed to a chilly cemetery in Stockholm in November last year to attend filming.
A large part of that comes down to the natural charm of the show’s creator and star, Schiaffino Musarra (aka Schiff), a US-born writer and actor who has lived in Sweden for more than a decade. Moreover, We Got This! is less a story about Palme and far more a skewering of the botched official attempts to find his killer and an examination of the legions of amateur detectives obsessed with solving the case themselves.
In a world where conspiracy theories, be they about the true shape of Earth or the latest terrorist attack on the West, are being given more oxygen than ever, We Got This! is a satire for the ages. “People don’t tell stories about Olof Palme here in Sweden. It’s taboo,” Musarra explains after a full morning’s filming at Skogskyrkogården, otherwise known as the Woodland Cemetery, where the team have just got through the 1,000th slate of the shoot. Cake will soon be delivered to celebrate.
Earlier that morning, main character George (Musarra) and his ragtag crew of unlikely investigators were huddled outside the cemetery’s Resurrection Chapel, asking the key question: who killed ‘cat lady’?
In between takes, Musarra returns the late cat lady’s incredibly furry feline, Rio (real name Zombie, a star of numerous Scandinavian commercials), to its handler, accruing more fur on his waistcoat and trousers with every take. This being Sweden, there are plenty of open sandwiches being nibbled behind the scenes by hungry crew members, many of whom are clad in the fashionable knitwear one would expect a Swede to wear to stave off the cold and look great while doing so.
The key creative team working with Musarra includes co-writer Santiago Gil (Veni Vidi Vici) and Oscar-nominated director Patrik Eklund (Instead of Abracadabra), who is adept at combining eccentric characters and dark comedy.
While Musarra admits SVT may be a little nervous about the show’s reception (“That’s their job,” he says), the bushy-bearded star is satisfied his motives behind making We Got This! are nothing close to exploitative.
Much of the show is semi-autobiographical and based on Musarra’s own experiences, right down to the money troubles that inspired both him and George to delve into the Palme mystery. “I really did have a tax problem. I had a good year followed by a bad year and, when it came to pay up for the good year, I didn’t have the money. I was freaking out about how to pay when I discovered the reward for anyone who could solve the Olof Palme case,” Musarra says.
“But there is a line that separates me from the main character – the main thing being that I would not go so far in trying to solve the Palme case that I would put my family in danger. That’s where I stop and George continues.”
The death of the cat lady is a key plot point in the first season of We Got This!, providing George with a potential shortcut to finding out who was behind the Palme murder once and for all. George’s quest also relates to one of the show’s main themes: the culture clash between the US and Sweden. Musarra says George, like many Americans, loves to cut corners, which is at odds with Swedes’ propensity to follow the rules, many of which seem to be unwritten and learnt as a product of Swedish socialisation.
Upon seeing a poster advertising a reward for the safe return of the missing Rio, George tracks down the cat and sets off to pocket some cash by returning it to its owner. But George is too late, and the cat lady is no more.
However, her flat turns out to be a haven of clues into Palme’s death. Without revealing too many details, the deceased woman’s flat contains all manner of intel about the case. George’s interest piqued, he suspects her demise could have come from her knowing too much. Could there be groups out there who would prefer the identity of Palme’s killer remains a mystery?
You’ll have to watch the show to find out. But given that Palme’s murder remains an ongoing case, Jarowskij, the prodco making the drama, is understandably keen to avoid defaming anyone. As a result, experts on the case have been consulted, the legal team has been kept closely in the loop and the show has been meticulously researched, producer Anna-Sofia Mörck tells DQ.
Mörck first met Musarra when they were neighbours in the bohemian but still somewhat sketchy LA area of Venice Beach. Musarra was living there with his Swedish wife, whom he had met in New York, and his very young children, whose arrival soon led to a move to Sweden in 2006. “We started thinking about where we wanted to raise a family. Venice Beach was fun, but I had people selling crack outside my front door. It made us think, ‘Hmm, Sweden sounds nice,’” says Musarra.
Having first developed an interest in the Palme case when he got married in Sweden in 1999, Musarra’s fascination was reignited upon his return, and turned into an obsession once he found out there was a SEK50m (US$5.3m) cash reward for solving the mystery. Musarra discovered the case to be a hotbed of fascinating theories and unbelievable characters, which he initially considered developing as a mockumentary before eventually evolving it into a TV series.
However, due to the subject matter, no broadcaster would touch it. Musarra spent more than seven years pitching the show, to no avail. “It just wasn’t something people were willing to take a risk on,” he says.
But then, around the time culture-clash comedy Welcome to Sweden came out in 2014, Musarra noticed a sudden and important shift in the Swedish TV industry. “I don’t know if it was because of the streaming wars, but there were more and more coproductions. Sweden started to reach for an audience beyond Scandinavia,” he says.
Nevertheless, Scandi commissioners still weren’t exactly queuing up to order a comedy drama about such a sensitive topic. “Whenever I would pitch it, I’d say I wanted to do this comedy about the murder of Olof Palme. They would say, ‘How is that going to be funny?’ Of course, the murder is not the funny part – it’s Sweden’s national tragedy. But all the private detectives who think they can solve it, the fact the case was so poorly managed and is still going on and there’s still a SEK50m reward – it’s got comedy of the absurd written all over it.”
A key turning point came when Musarra heard how Justin Simien, creator of Netflix original series Dear White People – a comedy/drama hybrid with a similarly hard-to-pitch topic of racial tension that doesn’t necessarily sound funny on paper – bankrolled his own concept trailer for the show to get the tone across to risk-averse commissioners.
Musarra teamed up with Mörck to put the trailer together, with the duo relying on favours from friends to borrow equipment and hire actors, many of whom have been kept on for the series. The trailer does an impressive job of making the show feel fully formed, getting across its mix of offbeat humour, tension and intrigue.
It’s so accomplished that a casual observer would likely watch it and ask, ‘Cool, so when’s the show on?’ But Musarra and Mörck still had plenty to do to make that a reality.
Helped by the existence of the trailer, Banijay Group-owned Jarowskij came on board as part of its strategy to grow its slate of scripted projects with international potential. Soon, Musarra found himself pitching the show to a jury that included top execs at Sky and Netflix at Séries Mania in Lille in 2018.
Caroline Torrance, head of scripted at distribution arm Banijay Rights, remembers being concerned about Musarra’s prospects, with the creator being the 16th entry at the end of a gruelling pitching session. “We were worried about it being the last pitch at Séries Mania, but really we had nothing to worry about,” she says. The jury clearly picked up on Musarra’s infectious enthusiasm for a project so close to his heart, and the team bagged the €50,000 (US$54,210) development funding prize.
Fast-forward to late 2019 and the team is preparing to shoot for three days in Atlanta, Georgia, close to where Musarra grew up before he moved to Boston, New York and then LA, prior to settling in Europe with his young family. Returning to the States will be bittersweet for Musarra, whose father died around the time We Got This! was finally getting off the ground in 2017. “The biggest success of my career and one of the most disappointing moments of my personal life were slammed together,” he notes.
The experience has bled into We Got This!. With filming outside the Resurrection Chapel complete, the production moves indoors to the location’s calm interior, where a solemn scene set around the cat lady’s funeral triggers George’s memory of the recent funeral for his father.
The crew make sure a fire extinguisher is on hand in case one of the many candles on set falls over, while anyone bringing an open sandwich onto set is quickly admonished. The camera will follow a priest walking towards an open casket, which viewers are meant to presume will contain the cat lady but in fact contains an old man with a bushy beard, eyes closed and deathly pale. Suddenly, his eyes open. “Hi, George,” the dead man says.
It encapsulates the dark humour that runs through We Got This!, each episode of which comes with what Musarra calls an “Oh shit!” moment that raises the stakes, including a chase scene through the tunnels of the Stockholm metro.
It may be dark in tone, but it’s certainly a shift away from many of the dramas those from outside Sweden would associate with the country and from which Musarra is keen to distance himself. “Sweden has got the whole Scandi noir thing on lock, to the point where it’s more like a formula. I don’t particularly need to see another dead white girl in the forest, but people keep watching that for some reason. As long as it sells, people are going to make it,” he says.
Banijay Rights’ Torrance, whose job it will be to shop We Got This! around the world, agrees that crime dramas from the region are still popular among audiences and so remain in demand from buyers, but adds that there’s also a degree of craving in the market for scripted content that does things differently. As a result, she expects We Got This! to stand out.
“The comedy works in the way the comedy worked in Killing Eve, with haphazard agents running around and some very dark comedic moments,” Torrance says. “That’s often what people are looking for now, because quite a lot of Nordic noir plays it quite straight. But things like Killing Eve have proved audiences react really well to something darkly funny.”
With filming completed around the cemetery, and the celebratory cake quickly devoured by cast and crew, everybody packs up and heads to a nearby dive bar adorned with football scarves for iconic teams such as Juventus and Leeds United. Not that the team will be toasting the day’s work, however. There’s still another scene to be filmed and, as per Sweden’s notoriously dark winter days, the sun is already setting at 15.15. Luckily, it doesn’t require daylight.
Palme’s assassination may be credited in some quarters with providing the grisly inspiration for a wealth of crime fiction that led to the boom in Nordic noir. But We Got This! highlights how this stranger-than-fiction case could lead to a new wave of darkly comic series originating from Scandinavia.