When a series of bombings and cyber attacks hit Stockholm, the Swedish Secret Service, SÄPO, struggles to find the organisation responsible. Meanwhile, having just returned home after years of Navy SEAL training, Carl Hamilton rejoins SÄPO’s elite black-ops division while also being identified as a possible suspect.
Swedish 10-part drama Agent Hamilton follows the eponymous spy and agent Kristin Ek as they discover there are darker forces at work, with an organisation taking advantage of fake news, xenophobia and terrorism in order to turn a profit. As loyalties are put to the test, Hamilton is forced to choose what future is best for his country.
In this DQTV interview, star Jakob Oftebro, who plays Hamilton, and director Erik Leijonborg reveal how Jan Gillou’s literary agent was given a modern update for the series, which introduces viewers to the character by following him on his first mission.
Oftebro talks about how the series shows both the professional and personal aspects of his character, while Leijonborg discusses the filming techniques he used to play with the drama’s visual style.
Agent Hamilton is produced by Dramacorp Pampas Studios and Kärnfilm in coproduction with TV4, C-More, Beta Film and ZDF, in association with ZDF Enterprises.
Swedish producer Piodor Gustafsson reveals his approach to book adaptations and explains why thriller Moscow Noir presents a new side of Russia.
While recent television dramas such as McMafia and The Americans have shone the spotlight on Russia on both sides of the Cold War, with stories full of international mystery and intrigue, one series aims to present a fresh perspective of the country.
Set at the turn of the 21st century, Moscow Noir sees ambitious young Swedish investment banker Tom Blixen take a bet on a risky deal that goes horribly wrong, locking him into a battle with millionaires, politicians, oligarchs and their private armies. The fallout sees his life put on the line while ghosts from his past – secrets he has been trying to ignore – return to haunt him.
The eight-part series is based on The Conductor from Saint Petersburg, the first of a trilogy of thrillers by Swedish writers Camilla Grebe and Paul Leander-Engström.
The fact the story is based in part on Leander-Engström’s own experiences working in finance in Russia was what particularly intrigued Swedish producer Piodor Gustafsson about the source material. His company, Black Spark Film & TV, has a reputation for book-to-screen adaptations, having also been behind Sthlm Rekviem (Sthlm Requiem) and All jag inte minns (Everything I Don’t Remember).
“I read a lot. Producers don’t usually create our own ideas; we could, but sometimes it’s much easier to get people interested if it’s not the producer’s idea. If I want to work with a really good writer, it’s easier if there is something that already exists than if I come with my own 20 pages and say, ‘Look, I have a great idea. Can you make it fantastic?’” Gustafsson tells DQ.
“It’s a bigger hurdle than having a book that’s sold and is really popular. It’s the same thing with financiers [of TV drama] – it’s easier to pitch to them. So I read all the time and I have several books I really want to make [into TV shows]. Sometimes the rights are already taken; sometimes they are free. In the case of Moscow Noir, I read the book after a recommendation from Caroline Palmstierna [the founder of Swedish prodco Shoot for the Moon].
“She arranged a meeting one of the authors, Paul, and he said had already optioned it to a company in England. But they had a very short option period. So Paul promised to call them and see if they were prepared to let them go – and they were, so then I got the rights.”
Gustafsson gleaned more information from about the story from Leander-Engström, while his own circumstances also fuelled his interest in the thriller. “I have a summer house on Gotland, a big island in the middle of the Baltic Sea and as close to the old USSR as you get from Sweden, which is now Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia. You realise how close it is and yet we know nothing about real Russians,” he says.
“So by reading the book, it was the first time I read about Russians who were bad guys but still had a good side. It felt like [the authors] really understood these characters. Of course, Paul lived there for 10 years and speaks fluent Russian. I also have a law degree and I worked in a bank, so I understand that side of society as well. It intrigued me.”
Created and written by Aleksi Bardy, Mia Ylonen and Max Barron, the show stars Adam Pålsson (Before We Die) as Tom, with Carolina Gruszka (Kod genetyczny) and Linda Zilliacus (Thicker Than Water) also among the cast. Filming took place in Russia and Lithuania, while the series plays out in the Russian, Swedish and English languages.
Sweden’s C More and TV4 came on board as broadcasters alongside Poland’s NC+, though efforts to find a Russian partner were unsuccessful. “We filmed a little bit in Russia. We tried to get a coproduction with Russia and it was put to their biggest channels, but they were hesitant about whether it would be a good thing for them to be involved and, in the end, they decided against it,” Gustafsson recalls.
“The book is set in 2003, which is after Vladimir Putin came into power [as president], while we placed it in 1999 because that was when the shift between [predecessor] Boris Yeltsin and Putin happened.
“We filmed the rest in Lithuania. A lot of Lithuanian actors are fluent in Russian and they work a lot in Russia, so we could quite easily cast all the characters we wanted and cast them locally. We had some other nationalities, but most were Lithuanians and they were really great actors.”
Gustafsson believes the 2018 series, which StudioCanal has sold to broadcasters including Canal+ in France, stands out because its central character is not a typical action hero. “Adam is a great actor but he looks very young and is not your normal action character. That makes it challenging when you introduce him, because he’s not a typical hero, but it’s also a strength further on because the weakness he presents is what we all feel and it’s easy to identify with him,” he explains. “A lot of people could actually connect with him even though they’re not interested in banking.
The producer adds: “One of our aims was to create characters that felt true to Russia in 1999 and to move away from stereotypes. Russians we’ve shown it to feel the characters are very close to how people really were. Paul, who created these characters inspired by real people, really felt we came very close.
“We screened the first two episodes of the series in a cinema and Paul brought some of his old banking colleagues from that time. Funnily enough, they could pinpoint some of the characters that were Paul’s inspiration. Michael Håfström, the director, collaborated closely with the Russian-speaking actors to find a tone that was true.
Black Spark is now in post-production on two feature films. One is called Tigers, written and directed by Ronnie Sandahl, and the other is Icelandic film Lamb, from Valdimar Jóhannsson, which is coproduced with Go to Sheep from Iceland and Madant from Poland.
Continuing his passion for adapting novels, Gustafsson is also developing a TV series with Belgium’s Lunanimé and Nordisk Film in Denmark, based on The Swimmer by Joachim Zander, and is working on Mons Kallentoft’s Se Mig Falla (See Me Falling).
DQ lands in Stockholm to find a city-centre park taken over by filming for spy action thriller Agent Hamilton. The cast and creative team reveal their screen ambitions for Jan Guillou’s iconic literary character.
It’s lunchtime in Kungsträdgården, a tree-lined park in central Stockholm that is surrounded by outdoor cafés and lies in the shadow of the city’s opera house, close to the water that flows between the many islands that make up the Swedish capital.
On this bright summer’s day in August, it’s hard to see where the crowds of onlookers end and the extras filming 10-part Swedish action thriller Agent Hamilton begin. But once the cameras are rolling, it quickly becomes clear.
In a scene from the opening episode, Swedish interior minister Sissela Lindgren (played by Anna Sise) is giving a speech during the annual May Day protests when word spreads of a bomb going off a few blocks away. Urged to leave immediately, she stands by as her assistant races towards the politician’s car. It’s then that a second bomb detonates in the vehicle, leaving several dead and countless bystanders injured.
On set beside a large stage, dozens of extras are standing in their first positions, some holding bags and others grasping bright red balloons, their faces stiff with anticipation. Then when a crew member using a loudspeaker calls ‘Action,’ they all hurtle off in different directions, replicating the chaos and panic that spreads after a terrorist atrocity.
A small girl, her face covered in blood, sits next to her mother, who is lying motionless on the pavement. Other ‘victims’ lie in piles of shattered glass, their figures scattered around the smouldering remains of a black Volvo, its roof and bonnet ripped apart by the force of the blast.
As the panic continues, flashing lights from a number of arriving police cars appear in the distance. Then Jakob Oftebro, in character as Hamilton, slowly walks past the wreckage as the camera captures him surveying the devastation.
In all, more than 100 extras are involved in the set piece, with up to 200 in total filling this corner section of Kungsträdgården. In between takes, make-up artists are reapplying scars and wounds with tubes of fake blood.
Crew members are discussing whether one extra should continue to hold their balloon as they flee from the blast, while others are preparing to set an extra on fire as the camera pans around the still-burning car for a close-up on the minister cradling the body of her aide.
It’s a surreal and unsettling experience to be watching these events unfold, from the panic-stricken crowd’s screams (more will be added in post-production) to the sight of young children covered in blood and bodies lying motionless on the floor. As Oftebro tells DQ during a break in filming: “It’s horrifying, isn’t it?”
Agent Hamilton is based on Jan Guillou’s bestselling Carl Hamilton spy novels, which have become Sweden’s most iconic literary property since their debut in 1986. Though the books are set during the Cold War, the series brings the lead character into the present and plunges him in the middle of a “Cold War 2.0” between Russia and the US in the heart of Northern Europe.
Following a series of bombings and cyber attacks in Stockholm, the Swedish Secret Service, SÄPO, is struggling to find those responsible. Nobody knows Carl Hamilton has returned home and enlisted in SÄPO’s black-ops division following years of Navy SEAL training in the US, but after the attacks, he is identified as a possible suspect by agent Kristin Ek.
As they enter a cat-and-mouse chase to uncover the truth behind the attacks, they find darker forces at work, testing Hamilton’s loyalties to his country and exposing an organisation that is exploiting fake news, xenophobia and terrorism to turn a profit.
Starring alongside Oftebro (Below the Surface) are former Wallander duo Nina Zanjani and Krister Henriksson as Kristin and SÄPO boss DG respectively, plus Rowena King (Criminal Minds) and Jörgen Thorsson.
Executive producer Patrick Nebout (Midnight Sun) secured the rights to the Hamilton novels in 2016 after Guillou gave his blessing to a modern adaptation. The author created the character based on his knowledge of Swedish and international intelligence agencies, having spent a year in prison for espionage after helping to expose a covert spy group.
It’s not the first time Hamilton has been adapted for the screen, with Stellan Skarsgård and Peter Haber among those to have previously portrayed the character, who has been described as Sweden’s James Bond. But despite the flattering comparison, given 007’s lasting success on the big screen, Nebout says Hamilton is more like Jason Bourne if he were in Homeland, referring to the book-to-screen spy made famous by Matt Damon and US premium cablenet Showtime’s long-running espionage series.
“He’s very streetwise. He’s young. It’s closer to Homeland than a typical James Bond story, but you have all the same elements,” Nebout says of Hamilton. “We have action, we have a very character-driven story and we are in different locations. We are in Sweden, Russia, Germany and the Middle East. That’s where the Jason Bourne and James Bond comparisons can be made.
“There’s also a very realistic French show called Le Bureau des Légendes. We’re somewhere in the middle. We’re not completely in the naturalistic environment of Le Bureau des Légendes and we’re not in the heightened ‘fantasy’ world of James Bond.”
Inspired by movies from the 1970s including Three Days of the Condor and Marathon Man, Nebout says the aim from the outset was to create a very modern and ambitious Nordic spy thriller. Though as a result of setting the show in the present, little remains from the books except the main characters and the setup of Hamilton’s Navy SEAL training.
“The Hamilton movies were quite black and white in the sense that there were bad guys and good guys, but we wanted to be much more complex, especially now with the ‘Cold War’ situation. It’s a very blurry universe,” Nebout says. “The first season really brings something accurate and relevant to today’s world, in terms of how the corporate world can also have alliances with terrorists and how this mixes together.
“Then you have someone like Hamilton, who starts as someone very straightforward in his notions of good and bad but comes to understand he’s being used by people with a very different agenda. So it’s a journey of someone who starts off very idealistic in his views and starts peeling things back layer by layer until he understands that everything is not what he thought it was.”
Agent Hamilton is the latest Nordic drama to steer away from the popular noir detective shows that have become synonymous with the region. The series, produced by Dramacorp-Pampas Studios, also uses an authentic blend of languages depending on where the story moves, featuring Swedish, Russian and Arabic alongside English.
Behind the camera is conceptual director Erik Leijonborg, who has shown an ability to handle large-scale action on Netflix historical series The Last Kingdom and more intimate character drama with Tjockare än Vatten (Thicker Than Water).
“That’s such a lovely part of directing,” he says. “I can be with two extremely good actors doing a love scene and the next day I’m in Morocco shooting an action scene with special effects and stunts. The combination is so fun. The crucial part is telling a story but in different ways. If I have a big explosion in one of the major parks in Sweden, with a lot of tension and special effects, then we can have a scene afterwards where Hamilton’s just sitting on a bed.”
The director says a key part of the show is delving deep into the characters to ensure they drive the plot, not the other way around. “There’s more than solving the case and killing the enemy,” he says. “We also need to ask how to feel afterwards.
“I’m like a vampire – I need to live off the characters’ emotions and make them come alive. It’s fun and stimulating to film because it’s very modern, dramatic and emotional. We can have those heroic moments but I’m still totally grounded in realistic filmmaking. That’s the only thing I know; I don’t know anything else, so here I am challenged to do some more dramatic scenes. I call my shooting style ‘dramatic realism.’ It’s still very realistic but very dramatic.”
Leijonborg, who shares directing duties with Lisa Farzaneh and Per Hanefjord, also sat in on the writers room with head scribe Petter S Rosenlund (The Saboteurs), who was a fan of Guillou’s novels. Rosenlund says the biggest challenge in adapting them was coming to terms with the social and political changes in the 30-plus years since they were first published.
“It’s based on the conflict between the military and police in Guillou’s books – we have this conflict between the secret police and secret military agents,” says Rosenlund.
“When it comes to who is who and who’s dealing with what, then we have this conflict. So Kristin understands something is happening on the military side and that Hamilton belongs to this super-secret department, which is created by DG.”
Zanjani’s Kristin, a mother who must juggle the demands of her job with parenthood, is key to grounding the series. “She’s the one who tries to answer the question, ‘How does a Swedish agent fit into society?’ She will be the one trying to uncover Hamilton’s existence and put it into daylight,” the actor says of her character.
“The Swedish secret police can’t allow people to do some of the things he’s involved with. She’s the very skilled and smart police officer who starts to investigate some of the strange things that have been happening after the attack on Stockholm, so she tries to find who is behind it. [She and Hamilton] do the same thing, so they’re crossing each other.”
Zanjani hadn’t read any of the Hamilton books before accepting the role, which was created for the series. In any case, she believes “it’s better not to know [what happens in the books] because it makes you more free to find your character and make it your own,” she says. “But we all feel free in that sense. It’s the first time we’re doing it [in a contemporary setting], even though it existed before. It’s such a modern story so it makes us newly born.”
Meanwhile, Henriksson says he defined DG through the character’s relationship with Hamilton, whom he describes as being like the son DG never had. “That is a big problem. It makes relations very complicated – it’s love, it’s hate, it’s respect,” he notes.
The actor says he was inspired to join the series as Hamilton is an “iconic figure” in Sweden, much like Wallander, the fellow literary character Henriksson played on screen in more than 30 feature-length episodes over eight years until 2013. “Not everyone in Sweden has read the books but they think they know who he is,” he adds. “That’s why I’m here.”
Despite working in multiple languages in places around the world, Nebout says discussions around Agent Hamilton have always focused on the story to ensure the series has both the depth of character and complexity of plot to satisfy audiences. “That should be the focus for all producers and series,” he says. “It’s really about the script, the characters and being able to relate to those characters. Even if you hate Hamilton, it’s also about relating to him on the macro level and micro level.”
The series will debut on Scandi streamer C More before airing in Sweden on TV4. Germany’s ZDF, in association with ZDF Enterprises, is a coproducer alongside distributor Beta Film, which has already placed the series with Norway’s TV2, Denmark’s DR and Finland’s MTV3.
Having secured a two-season commitment for the show upfront, Nebout says plans are already underway for the next stage of the story. Combining impressive scale and spectacle with complex, modern-day themes, Agent Hamilton looks set to breathe new life into Guillou’s character and create an iconic spy for a new generation.
Carl Hamilton has featured in more than a dozen literary outings and several screen adaptations. But much like Daniel Craig’s first outing as James Bond in 2006’s Casino Royale, this new series takes the eponymous spy right back to the beginning, following him on his first mission.
In Agent Hamilton, little remains of Jan Guillou’s Cold War-set novels except the leading character, with the series opening just as the spy returns home to Sweden after completing training in the US with the Navy SEALs.
“He’s an activist, politically active, military trained and very capable of doing different stuff, technologically, intellectually and physically,” actor Jakob Oftebro (right) says of his character. “So he’s definitely different. He’s not that into gadgets or expensive cars. The series asks how you can be a secret agent and how it works to be in the military in a country that has traditionally been neutral. It’s super interesting to try to get into that psyche and find the righteousness in being a secret agent in Sweden nowadays.”
Oftebro’s preparation involved talking with current and former military veterans, secret agents, Navy SEALs and bodyguards, as well as plenty of physical training. But the star’s primary focus has been on finding Hamilton’s humanity, aided by speaking to people about how this kind of job can affect your life and mental health.
“I’m trying to find the human in the character and being a special agent, not only seeing someone as super cool doing super-intelligent stuff,” he explains. “We’re starting this story days after he arrives back home, so I’m trying to imagine being born in Stockholm and then leaving to train at the Navy SEAL academy and then coming back to Stockholm to be a secret agent. It’s quite a difficult job. Stockholm is not the biggest city in the world – obviously you would know people, so how does it work? How do you infiltrate? And how do you work as a secret agent in the city where you were born and raised?
“I think a lot of people can relate to that, if you’ve studied abroad or lived abroad and then returned. It’s always strange. You will eventually meet the teenage version of yourself or the child or have old memories. But you have to break loose from that and think, ‘I’m a secret agent now.’ It’s also difficult in a country that is so pacifistic and against war.”
After an on-set injury earlier this year that put production on hold, Oftebro recovered to take his place in front of the camera, which he says has been a huge honour.
“I have a dramatic background so after doing a couple of the action scenes, it’s nice to have a scene where you can see that he’s a human being and not a machine,” he continues. “The most fun has been when Hamilton and Kristin [Nina Zanjani] finally sit down together and the conflict comes to the surface. Everybody’s just human. Otherwise, you’re a psychopath. What’s interesting is the question of whether Hamilton is a psychopath. I really enjoy the character. I love doing this.”
Swedish actor Julia Ragnarsson talks to DQ about financial thriller Fartblinda (Blinded), in which she plays a journalist tasked with investigating her married lover.
After appearing in one of the biggest films of the summer, Sweden-set horror Midsommar, Julia Ragnarsson is now leading the cast of eight-part drama Fartblinda. That the series is launching hot on the heels of director Ari Aster’s film reflects the way the two productions were filmed back-to-back, with Ragnarsson jumping from one to the other over an intense eight-month filming schedule.
In Fartblinda (known as Blinded internationally), she plays financial journalist Bea Farkas, who, in pursuit of her next scoop, detects irregularities in ST Bank’s trading department – a matter made more complicated by the fact she is having an affair with the bank’s CEO Peder Rooth (Matias Varela), a married man.
It’s in this ethical and moral malaise that much of the drama takes place, with Blinded placing financial thriller and relationship saga side by side. Ragnarsson’s Bea is a compelling character through which to follow the story, while her white blonde hair marks her out as an edgy, perhaps rebellious figure within the straight-laced newsroom.
The actor, best known for playing police trainee Olivia Rönning in Swedish drama Springfloden (Spring Tide), joined the Blinded cast just days before heading to Budapest, Hungary, to film Midsommar after she was invited to audition for the show. Filming for Blinded then began less than two weeks after Midsommar wrapped.
“It was strange. I just jumped on a train and went into the audition room but I did not know what this was and hadn’t read the script. I didn’t know anything!” Ragnarsson admits of the audition process. “Matias was already cast and then the day afterwards, they said I’d got the part. It was an extremely quick process. Everything happened so fast, so I was a little nervous when we started filming. I was like, ‘Am I prepared enough for this?’ I don’t really remember a lot about the first couple of weeks, it’s just like, ‘Which country am I in? What am I doing? Why’s my hair white?’ It was very quick but extremely fun.”
Bea’s hair makes her stand out immediately, marking a stark change from Ragnarsson’s usual brunette look. To ensure continuity, a hairdresser visited the set every three weeks to ensure the actor’s natural roots didn’t begin to show through.
“It’s rare you do a big change like that. I’ve always had pretty long hair that’s a natural brown colour,” Ragnarsson says. “This was an opportunity to make a big change, but at one point my hair started falling out – it just melted. So it was interesting! But it helps a lot for a character to make a drastic change.
“I feel like in Swedish cinema and TV, you have to look like a very common or average person. We don’t do anything to stick out. They want it to be very plain, normal, low key, like it could be anyone. But in this case, they wanted to go the opposite way, which was refreshing and fun. Also, with my clothes and styling, it could be something different. There are so many shows being made, you want it to feel a bit different.”
The series has been adapted from economics journalist Carolina Neurath’s book of the same name, which is based on real events. However, Ragnarsson says she didn’t read the book before shooting in order to avoid that story clashing with the plot of the show. Instead, she worked alongside directors Jens Jonsson and Johan Lundin to build Bea’s character based on the scripts by Jesper Harrie, Maria Karlsson and Jonas Bonnier.
“I had the opportunity to try different things on set and was very free to try something new,” she says. “They’re extremely generous when it comes to that sort of thing. That’s what’s fun about what I do; even though it’s hectic, you have some time to play, which I think is very important.”
Produced by FLX (Quicksand, Bonusfamiljen) for Nordic streamer C More and Sweden’s TV4, Blinded also represents the first major investment in the region’s drama by distributor All3Media International. Ragnarsson believes the show has a fresh style that will make it stand out.
“It’s not a cop show, which it tends to be if you look at [other Swedish series such as] The Bridge and Wallander,” she notes. “Not a lot of people really know what is going on in the financial world. It’s very closed and secretive, even for journalists. You have to start digging to find out what’s going on.
“This is about a private, niche bank but we’re starting to see now there’s a lot of weird shit going on with bigger banks, and I think the setting is interesting. It’s about tons of money, good-looking people, greed and how far [people will] go for the sake of money, or how far you go not to get caught. It’s just as intriguing and exciting as a cop show when there’s a serial killer on the loose, but we’ve seen that many times before.”
The most interesting aspect of the show is the internal conflict troubling Bea, who wants to do her job but is also in a relationship with the person she must investigate. Flashbacks reveal the origins of the relationship between Bea and Peder, showing that their affair is not simply a short-lived fling and that they have feelings for each other – to the detriment of Peder’s wife, Sophie (Julia Dufvenius).
“So do I fuck him over and potentially reveal a huge scandal that will take my career to a whole other level, or am I going to stick with this person, even though I don’t really know if he’s lying to me or not?” Ragnarsson says. “She decides to find out if he’s lying. It’s a very thankful thing for a character to have that conflict. It’s a suspense thriller but it’s also a love story and a relationship drama. It’s not just about the bank and the newspaper and the war between them; it’s also a war between these two people who are in love and might end up hating each other.”
Filming was split between Riga, the Latvian capital, and Stockholm. But despite the rapid production process, Ragnarsson says walking the right line through the Bea’s morale maze was the most challenging aspect of filming the series.
“I wanted the audience to understand how Bea makes this decision to start investigating and basically screw the person that she loves, and how her work and her profession are just as important as, or maybe more important than, this married man,” the actor adds. “So there are so many things that make it difficult. My challenge and my responsibility as an actor was to try to portray that.
“We’re going to see different sides to Peder, too, not just his flattery. It will be interesting to see what people think and if they’re rooting for us as a couple or they hate us both.”
Fartblinda launched with its first two episodes on C More earlier this month, before entering a weekly release schedule. TV4 will debut the drama on Monday.
“I hope this will be a nice mixture of a relationship drama together with this financial world, the investigation stuff and also the thriller elements,” Ragnarsson adds. “It gives the show some extra spice. It’s always fun to watch people in love.”
As Versailles concludes after three seasons, executive producer Claude Chelli and costume designer Madeline Fontaine discuss the making of the lavish French historical drama.
For three seasons, French historical drama Versailles captivated viewers around the world with its daring mix of passion, power and betrayal, all set within the court of King Louis XIV.
The English-language series introduced the 28-year-old king of France, who commissioned the most beautiful palace in Europe, which came to serve as the king’s gilded prison — keeping his friends close and his enemies closer. As the Canal+ series progressed — the 10-part third and final season begins tonight in the UK on BBC2 — it exposed the dark underbelly of power as the monarch struggled to retain control of his palace and his people.
The concept of Versailles, created by David Wolstencroft and Simon Mirren, took more than four years to develop, executive producer Claude Chelli recalls, as coproducers Capa Drama, Zodiak Fiction and Incendo sought to bring together a broadcaster and coproducers to assemble the financing.
“It was a big project with a big budget,” he says. “The first season is always difficult to find your mark; you don’t know what’s necessary or what’s superfluous. But after that, the second season was very nice and the third season felt like home.”
That success was reaped not only in France but around the world, as the series drew viewers in the UK, US (Ovation and Netflix), Scandinavia (C More) and elsewhere following deals with distributor Banijay Rights.
“It’s very surprising because France is a small country as far as drama is concerned, so we never expect things to go that wide. It was an incredible surprise,” Chelli admits. “Of course, we put a lot of money, effort and time into gathering talent but the reception from everywhere else is amazing.
“We know on a show like that, we’re not only working for France. It’s a €30m [US$30m] show so we need Europe at least; we need the world. But we’re very impressed by the reception in America and the work and effort that Ovation put in to support a show like this. We’re very proud of the show.”
Though ultimately necessary to bring the various financial pieces together, Versailles didn’t start out as an English-language series. Indeed, it was originally in French, but the switch was done to bring in the money to build the budget the show demanded.
“So we switched from French to English very early on in order to get that money,” Chelli says. “We also knew we were going to be criticised in France, but that doesn’t really matter because the show is more powerful. Everyone understood why we needed to do it in English.
“Because we knew we had to gather the best talent in France, we knew we couldn’t cut corners to save money. We knew we had to have great costumes and that Madeline [Fontaine, costume designer] would dress the last extra at the end of the road the same way she would dress the main cast.”
Money was also required to build and dress the sets. “Ultimately nothing of the 17th century is left in France because if you go to Versailles, nothing is 17th century. Marie Antoinette came after Louis XV and hated the decor and the furniture and curtains, so she destroyed everything and changed it. So we knew we had to recreate the 17th century. That’s when we decided to build the sets because they’re very specific. And we had to create all the costumes. That was the biggest challenge.”
But why make a series about Louis XIV, played by George Blagden, at all? For those not au fait with French history, Chelli describes the monarch as a major influence across every artistic department.
“He invented dance, he invented music, he invented cooking, basically,” he notes. “He invented architecture, the French garden. He made war with almost everyone and built castles. But also, what’s interesting about Louis XIV is that the origins of the French Revolution are there behind his actions. He spent so much money on war and building castles that the people of Paris and France were starving. It took some time for the people to revolt but the germs of the French revolution are in the third season. That’s what’s interesting about Louis XIV – it’s both the beginning of a new world and the end of the ancient world.”
When it came to creating the elegant gowns, outfits and dresses worn by the cast, costume designer Madeline Fontaine says that it was imperative she knew as much about the period as possible.
“Then, of course, after that, each character and the place they have in society is very important for the colours of every outfit,” she explains. “You also have to know how far we are from reality and be able to create the atmosphere of the period — to take the audience to the period and not to take them away. That’s the challenge anyway.”
Fontaine’s research covers the period’s history, its paintings and key pieces of writing, which she compiles to inform her own impressions of the time the series recreates. “My job is the interpretation of this information,” she continues, “and then you give the public your interpretation of your feeling of the period. It’s very interesting. I like this moment and once you go into the information, you can find what you need to make it.”
The key to Fontaine’s role, however, was not how many different outfits she could design for the characters — which were key to viewers’ understanding of their role in the series — but how they could evolve by changing smaller pieces rather than the entire costume.
“The public has to follow the characters, so if they change [their costumes] too much, that becomes more difficult,” she says. “So we can change different pieces of the outfit. For the extras we had 200 outfits, with three or four pieces for each one. Then you have to find the fabric for each of them, so it was a very big undertaking.”
Having worked across both television and film, with credits including Amélie and Jackie, Fontaine describes the process as the same, though the rhythm is decidedly different.
“On movies, you have the script from the very beginning and most of the time it doesn’t change so much and you have a schedule so you can prioritise what you need and save some things for later,” the designer reveals.
“Here we have the stories pretty late and we shoot cross blocks, so everything has to be ready at the same time. We don’t have so much flexibility. We have to be ready much more quickly than on a movie, and we shoot quickly too. So if you forget something, it’s done, it’s too late! It puts pressure on the workshop because everything has to be ready for tomorrow or the day after tomorrow.”
Fontaine won a Bafta in 2017 for her work on Jackie, a film about Jacqueline Kennedy (played by Natalie Portman) in the aftermath of her husband John F Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.
“It was a real surprise and recognition of my work from British costume designers meant a lot to me,” she adds. “The challenge with any period project is to make it true, so the challenge is the same. You just have to do it the best you can all the time. That’s how we work.”
Capa Drama will follow Versailles with Netflix’s second original French drama, Osmosis, which follows in the footsteps of Marseille and is due to launch later this year. The eight-episode series is set in a near-future Paris in which a dating app called Osmosis can find anybody’s true love.
With so much contemporary drama on French television, creating new landscapes — rooted in the past or thrown into the future — is one way to give creators free rein to tell their stories. “For artistic reasons, you have to invent a whole new world,” Chelli adds. “Osmosis is sci-fi but it’s the same thing as Versailles — you have to invent a new world. As a producer, it’s the really exciting side of things.”
Swedish noir Modus is back for a second season, with a cast that now includes Kim Cattrall as the US president. DQ visits the Stockholm set to find out why this drama has global appeal.
TV drama doesn’t get any more glamorous than this. We are crouching in Stygian semi-darkness beside the monitor in a dingy corridor at the Swedish Defence Ministry in Stockholm. We can barely see our hands in front of our faces.
To add to the sense of doom and gloom, the windows are blacked out. Suddenly, with no warning, out of the gloaming come marching two very scary-looking, thickset heavies in smart suits wielding machine guns. They are clearly not here to sing Happy Birthday to anyone.
Unsurprisingly, this is the set of a Nordic noir offering – and this one is literally noir.
Ever since the magnetic Danish crime story Forbrydelsen (The Killing) broke through internationally, winning a Bafta in the UK in 2011, and was immediately followed by the overseas success of series such as Borgen, The Bridge, Beck and the Swedish version of Wallander, Scandi dramas have been drawing huge and passionate audiences everywhere.
DQ is in Stockholm observing the filming of the newest such series to make waves globally. We are watching the white-knuckle denouement of the second season of Swedish drama Modus. Broadcast last year, the first season made a major impact around the world.
Its co-star Henrik Norlen, who has also appeared in such well-regarded Scandi dramas as Beck, Stockholm East, My Skinny Sister and Hotel, takes a break between scenes of this intense series to consider why Nordic noir has struck such an international chord.
“I think it’s because there is a lot going on behind these characters. They’re not just policeman or criminal profilers – they are also people. They have great depth.
“You get to go inside their head and see what they’re thinking. These dramas are also a bit darker than British or American series. It is a tradition in Nordic countries of telling stories that are dark, mystic and pagan.
“People from all over the world used to come up to me and say, ‘Oh, you’re from Scandinavia – that means Abba and Volvo.’ Now they come up to me and say, ‘Oh, you’re from Scandinavia – that means The Killing, The Bridge and Modus.’ Of course, Modus is better than all of them!”
Tobias Åström, the line producer on Modus, chips in: “In the past at television trade fairs, the only thing people wanted to see at the Swedish stall was what meatballs we had. Now they come up and ask, ‘What programme can you give me?’”
The second season of Modus is an eight-part adaptation by the Emmy-winning Danish screenwriters Mai Brostrøm and Peter Thorsboe of Madam President, the novel by the bestselling Norwegian crime author (and former Minister of Justice) Anne Holt.
Holt’s work coheres with the sepulchral prevailing mood of Nordic Noir. As the British crime writer Val McDermid has observed, “Anne Holt is the latest crime writer to reveal how truly dark it gets in Scandinavia.”
In this gripping season, intuitive Swedish criminal profiler Inger Johanne Vik (played by Melinda Kinnaman, My Life as a Dog) and compassionate detective Chief Ingvar Nymann (Norlén), both returning from season one, are now an item.
But the pair, who made a big splash when they first appeared together in the widely acclaimed first season, have little time to enjoy their life together as they are immediately plunged into another life-or-death investigation. They have to scramble when the first ever female US President, Helen Tyler (Kim Cattrall, Sex & the City), is kidnapped during a state visit to Sweden.
As the US and Swedish authorities struggle to rescue the president and indulge in a bitter blame game, Inger is reluctantly forced to work closely with her former mentor, the Machiavellian FBI director Warren Schifford (Greg Wise, The Crown). When the details of their troubled shared past slowly start to emerge, Inger’s entire mental stability is put at risk.
A coproduction from SVoD platform C More, TV4 Sweden, Miso Film Sweden and FremantleMedia International, the second season of Modus makes for a compelling tale of revenge, recrimination and retribution. It is due to premiere on C More later this year before airing on TV4.
British actor Wise is delighted to be dipping his toe into Nordic noir for the first time with Modus. He says what distinguishes this kind of piece is its willingness to treat its audience with respect. “What I’ve really enjoyed about working on this drama is the time spent developing the story and the characters,” he says.
“Very often, programme makers rush through their storytelling because they don’t trust the audience to get it. Things have to happen very fast – cut, cut, cut. Those productions imagine that we are the MTV generation and have memories like goldfish.”
But, continues the actor, who has also had leading roles in such memorable British dramas as Sense and Sensibility, The Outcast, Cranford and Madame Bovary, “viewers of Scandi dramas are really given time to invest in their relationship with the characters. They are allowed a proper glimpse into another world. It’s like the slow food revolution” – only in television.
International audiences are also attracted by the strangeness of the universe conjured up by shows such as Modus. Cecilia Bornebusch, the show’s production designer, comments: “It’s more exciting as a viewer if you don’t really understand what’s going on and you have to read between the lines. It’s more enticing than your own language because it seems exotic.
“Also, I think in Scandinavia we are very good at portraying relationships. We have never had great problems with war, so we have had other things to write about, like relationship difficulties. That’s in our blood.”
Like all the best Scandi dramas, Modus depicts a heightened world. Åström, who has also worked on The Bridge and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, reflects: “As in fairytales, in Nordic noir you draw on things from the margins. Normal people are greyer than the characters in drama. So when you tell a story in a drama, you can make it more colourful than real life.”
But, he adds with a smile, “Of course, in reality Sweden is not that dangerous a place. It does not have a serial killer hiding in every bush. Have you ever been to Ystad, where Wallander is set? It’s so quiet in reality. If that drama were true, there would be no one left in that town!”
Modus also employs another of Scandinavia’s great resources: its pellucid natural light. Bornebusch observes: “The Nordic light is wonderful. The light in Southern Europe is earthier, whereas we are influenced by the snow and the winter. It’s always so dark here – that’s why we like bright colours.”
In addition, the drama makes tremendous use of its Swedish backdrops. Wise remarks: “One of the really appealing things about Modus is that it shows the world how beautiful Stockholm is. It’s a stunning city. But it’s also a place full of secret tunnels that people have forgotten about.”
The city’s duality mirrors a key theme in this season: the contrast between our private and public faces. Holt has written several more novels about Inger, and the production team are eager to make further series tracking this fascinating and complex character.
But, equally, they are well aware that the best way to maintain the audience’s interest is to keep Modus fresh.
“If we made another season,” Åström concludes, “we would want to make sure that we could add something to it. We wouldn’t want to just keep milking the same cow and producing the same milk.
“We would want to make a new flavour – like banana!”
This summer, critics couldn’t decide whether M Night Shyamalan and Chad Hodge’s 10-part mystery-thriller Wayward Pines qualified as a hit. But the show’s host network Fox has now answered that question by giving the production a second season.
Fox Broadcasting Company’s entertainment president David Madden said: “Wayward Pines was a huge hit for us. We were absolutely blown away by the mysterious and surprising world that Night and his team created, and the twisting-and-turning storytelling that drew viewers in from day one. Season two is going to take the suspense, the vision of the future and the haunting character drama to whole new levels.”
A same-day audience of three to four million wasn’t especially impressive. But Fox has crunched the numbers and come up with the following analysis: “Season one of Wayward Pines ranked as summer 2015’s number-one broadcast scripted series among adults 18-49, averaging a 2.2/8 in the key demo. The series – about a Secret Service agent on a mission to find two missing federal agents in a sleepy town, and the shocking results of his investigation – ranked among summer 2015’s top 10 broadcast programmes overall among adults 18-49. It earned a multiplatform average audience of 9.4 million, which represents a +145% increase versus its Live+Same Day audience – the largest multiplatform lift versus Live+Same Day ever for a Fox drama.”
According to Fox, the second season will pick up in the wake of season one, when a new arrival in Wayward Pines finds himself in the middle of a serious rebellion, as the residents battle over how to preserve the endangered human race. Season one stars Matt Dillon and Toby Jones will not return, so there will be a lot of interest in who gets cast as the new lead.
This week has also seen renewals for Showtime’s Homeland and The Affair. This confirms our hunch that Homeland had done enough in season five to warrant a renewal, though the announcement has come later than expected.
Season five is finishing strongly, which appears to vindicate the decision to move central character Carrie (played by Claire Danes) to Berlin. Co-creator Alex Gansa has suggested that this could be the model going forward, with each season placing Carrie in a new geographic location.
There was also a renewal this week for NBC’s The Blacklist, which stars James Spader as a criminal mastermind working with the FBI. The drama, which will go into season four, averages a same-day of audience of around seven million. It’s also popular internationally, featuring on networks such as Sky Living and TF1 in France.
The timing of the announcement makes this an early renewal for the show, and creator Jon Bokencamp says he has known about The Blacklist’s return for a while. Speaking in a podcast interview this week, he commented: “We knew about that a while ago. It’s one of those things that’s hard to keep quiet. But yes, we’re renewed through to the fourth season. Hopefully we don’t tank that out – we’ve got a lot of story to tell.”
Back at Fox, one show that is certain to get a renewal is breakout hit Empire, which is now in the middle of its second run. However, the new season has been bumpy ride, akin to the ‘difficult second album’ syndrome. After opening to 16 million viewers (22.5 million when you add in the multiplatform/time-shifted figures), the music industry-based show dropped as low as 9.2 million (same-day rating) for episode nine. Episode 10 saw a bounceback (11.8 million) but the underlying critical narrative suggests the show has lost its way slightly.
The biggest complaint seems to be that this year’s plots and characters lack authenticity, with USA Today summing it up like this: “On social media, fans are griping about ever-more-outrageous storylines (‘cartoon garbage,’ sniffed one Twitter user), such as frantic efforts in (one) episode to find and dig up the body of Vernon, who was accidentally killed in last season’s finale, and park his decomposed corpse in a car to intimidate an attack-dog prosecutor. There’s pushback on the show’s heavy dose of celebrity cameos, from Chris Rock to Ludacris.”
Having said all this, Empire is still the strongest US network show by far. To put it in perspective, its rating among the all-important 18-49 demo far exceeds that of new shows such as Blindspot, Limitless and Quantico. So a renewal is as certain as anything can be in this life.
A likely beneficiary of its success is Rosewood, which airs straight after Empire. Having seen its ratings boosted as a result of Empire’s strong lead-in, it’s another show that is pretty much guaranteed a return.
Continuing on this topic, this week provided a superb example of the impact that a strong lead-in can have on a title’s ratings. Until recently, AMC’s Into the Badlands had been benefiting from airing directly after The Walking Dead. But with the latter now on a winter break, Badlands has seen its audience plummet. Same-day ratings for the first four episodes of the show go like this: 6.4 million, 4.8 million, 5.2 million, 2.4 million – the latter figure being the first week in which it didn’t have a boost from The Walking Dead.
This isn’t necessarily a problem for Badlands. It’s possible that, without TWD in the schedule, fans of the futuristic martial arts show have decided to record it and watch it another time (maybe earlier the next day). The real test of whether the show has managed to build a loyal audience will come with Live + 3 Day or Live + 7 Day ratings. That said, even at its new lower level, it’s still a strong shout for a renewal.
Moving away from renewals, this week saw the launch of a show that may soon be talked about as the latest Scandinavian hit.
Gasmamman (Mother Goose) is being described as Sweden’s answer to Breaking Bad. The story follows a mother-of-three who takes over the family’s illegal marijuana business after her husband is shot in a drug deal gone wrong.
The Endemol Shine-produced show is currently airing on pay TV platform C-More and will shift to Kanal 5 in spring 2016.
In an interview with Reuters, lead actress Alexandra Rapaport said: “When we pitched this we talked about it being a kind of Erin Brockovich meets Breaking Bad. The Bridge and The Killing were big inspirations for us. But I think we also add some humour to it, which is why we compare it to Breaking Bad.”
The Reuters report says the show’s producers plan to make four seasons in total.