Maren Louise Käehne and Karin Arrhenius discuss their unique writing partnership on Swedish drama Händelser vid Vatten (Blackwater), a six-part series based on Kerstin Ekman’s novel about a group of characters still haunted by the impact of a double murder that happened decades ago.
While Maren Louise Käehne and Karin Arrhenius may be credited as co-writers on Swedish series Händelser vid Vatten (Blackwater), their partnership is more akin to a relay race than a traditional screenwriting collaboration.
“Karin and I have actually never met – only on Zoom,” Käehne tells DQ over the same video platform. “What’s stands out most from making the series is writing and then handing over your scripts to someone else to make it to the finish line. It’s been very unusual from what I’ve done and what Karin has done before.”
But as she explains, her decision to pass script duties to Arrhenius was “very undramatic.” “It’s not like someone left in a rage or someone retired,” she says. Instead, Covid meant Käehne had to prematurely stop working on bringing Kerstin Ekman’s novel to television.
“It was really just schedules because Covid pushed everything back and I had to move on to another project I was already assigned to,” she adds. “And then Karin came in.”
Debuting earlier this month on Swedish pubcaster SVT, Blackwater traverses two timelines to reveal how three lives in the present have been shaped by the murder of two tourists far up in the mountains of northern Sweden, near the fictional Jämtland village of Svartvattnet (Blackwater), on a Midsummer’s night in 1973. After years of repression, the tragedy comes back into the light, interfering with the lives the three characters lead now.
Danish writer Käehne (The Bridge, Borgen) had read Ekman’s acclaimed novel back when it was first published in 1993 and loved it immediately. She particularly noted its cinematic quality, and remembers fostering hopes to adapt it while studying at film school.
“Everyone told me it was impossible, because Kerstin’s never going to sell the rights. So I didn’t do anything about it for many years,” she says. Then in 2017, she picked up the book once again and took it to SVT head of drama Anna Croneman, who had once tried to option the rights to the novel herself.
At the same time, Piv Bernth, the former head of drama at Denmark’s DR, launched her own production company, Apple Tree Productions. Käehne, Bernth, Croneman and director Pernilla August then all approached Ekman.
“It was a very beautiful moment coming to her apartment in Stockholm for tea and cookies,” the writer recalls of their successful meeting. “It was a big thing sitting with her, and then I set out to write the first drafts, with this idea I had from the beginning of breaking it into six parts. Luckily Kerstin liked it and we secured the rights.
“We worked it to a greenlight with SVT, Apple Tree and a lot of investors. We had quite a peaceful development process writing the scripts until Covid hit. Up until then, things were working along as they normally do on a project, and then things changed.”
Käehne continued working during the first Covid lockdown, but with another project looming with DR, the decision was made to bring Swedish writer Arrhenius (Rebecka Martinsson) on board to finish the scripts. August also relinquished directing duties to Michael Marcimain, though she stars in the series alongside her daughters Asta Kamma August and Alba August, plus Rolf Lassgård, Liv Mjönes and Magnus Krepper.
For Swedes, “Blackwater is a classic novel that we all have a very special relationship with,” notes Arrhenius, who joined the series in 2021. “I was really happy to come aboard – it was a big surprise. We didn’t have that much time, but we used the time well.
“Looking back now, I wonder how it happened because it was always a dream project. It’s a great structure, the six episodes, and it’s really good that they’re one-hour episodes because there’s so much to take care of with the three main characters and the two timelines. Time also means a lot in the novel and what it does to the characters, and that’s a challenge to bring out in the script. But it’s a good structure for that.”
Käehne admits her take on Ekman’s novel may be a bit liberal for some Swedish tastes, having made numerous changes from the source material during the initial development phase. That was possible, she says, because she was removed from the reverence the novel holds in Sweden.
“As a Dane, Marin hasn’t been lost in the Swedish woods as much as we have,” says Arrhenius, with a nod to the story’s relationship to nature. “She also changed the relationships more, whereas Michael and I went towards the themes of nature and life in the north of Sweden, which is pretty special. We maybe used Kerstin Ekman more.”
The story, at least initially, sees Annie and her daughter Mia discover two murdered tourists as they travel to start a new life in a commune with Annie’s boyfriend Dan. But though the crime remains unsolved and casts long shadows over the lives of the central characters, the series isn’t overly concerned with catching the killer.
“It’s just a random occurrence,” says Käehne. “Two people are killed in a tent, but it changes the lives of these people. It’s not really about the murder, the murder is just a motor – that’s how I always thought about it when I was writing. It’s just what we need to get it all going, it’s what we need to push the story forward, but it’s about the characters.
“Then we have these two timelines of people, the young versions of them and the 20-years-older versions, and the contrasts between them. They started off like this and now we see them living totally different lives, most of them estranged from the people they were close to because of this incident. Of course, there’s a crime to be solved but this is a very quiet drama. It’s about the lives of these people. It’s a quiet life in the middle of nowhere, but this murder has changed everything for them.”
Arrhenius agrees: “You get an explanation for the murder but, actually, that’s not the most interesting thing.”
The two writers had a meeting when Käehne handed over the scripts to Arrhenius, though they were both forced to approach the writing process under very different circumstances. While Käehne had several years to develop the show and evolve it based on the feedback she received, Arrhenius came on board when the start of production was already looming.
“When Karin came in, she was already on a set timeline so she didn’t have a choice to lock herself away in a cabin for six months. It was just writing,” says Käehne. “I don’t have one way to go about writing. It depends on the people I do it with and the directors. I work a lot with May el-Toukhy; we did Queen of Hearts together and we spend a lot of time talking and then I write for a shorter time. On other projects, I do a lot of writing and rewriting, so I wouldn’t say I have one way of going about it. Series and films are also very different processes, also because of funding and development styles.”
“This was a very different process for me,” says Arrhenius. “Michael was here [at my office] and I’ve never worked so hard on anything because we had the set timeline. It was not so much about the process, where you send things and have feedback, because we didn’t have time, so it was both intense and amazing. I went a little bit mad, actually, but I had to do it. I was all in.”
Told in three parts, Ekman’s novel bounces between the present and the past, and Käehne says the key to the adaptation – which is distributed internationally by ITV Studios – was fitting those time jumps into six episodes.
“Finding the structure in the adapted material was interesting because it is like sitting there with a pair of scissors trying to figure it out,” says Käehne. “I really like that. Sometimes it’s impossible – I’ve experienced projects where it’s impossible to find the structure; where you know exactly what the plot of the characters is but it doesn’t fit or the timelines don’t fit. But this one was quite fun to break down.
“With original content, it doesn’t go that fast because you have to make it up as you go. It takes a long time, you keep going back. It’s such a different process. When you do adapted material, you can move fast and easily go from not having anything to having a lot. You can move quite fast from blank page to having a script, which can be a lot harder working with your own material.”
Arrhenius then preserved that format but also expanded on character relationships through the story, heightening the haunting repercussions in the present of events that took place decades earlier.
“This is a story that really relies on those little life moments,” she adds. “You have to be careful not to take too many out. Reading the novel again, I saw how something that may seem like nothing was something. That’s also what we’ve had a lot of appreciation for, that it’s not built on stones, it’s built on shades and layers of everything. You don’t know in advance what will mean something or what is just nothing. It’s a balance of things.”
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