The writers and producer of Swedish drama Kalifat (Caliphate) tell DQ how they crafted this story of five young women who become radicalised by religious fundamentalism.
From the production team behind Bron/Broen (The Bridge) comes Kalifat (Caliphate), the story of five young women whose fates are intertwined in an examination of how religious fundamentalism can seduce individuals and destroy lives.
Based on an idea from Wilhelm Behrman, who writes the series with Niklas Rockström, the eight-part drama is produced by Filmlance for Swedish broadcaster SVT and distributed by Endemol Shine International. It is directed by Goran Kapetanovic and filmed in Stockholm and Jordan.
Behrman and Rockström have also been nominated for the Nordic TV Drama Screenplay Award, which is presented tomorrow during Göteborg Film Festival’s TV Drama Vision event, supported by Nordisk Film & TV Fond.
Here, Behrman, Rockström and producer Tomas Michaelsson reveal how Caliphate was conceived, developed and brought to the screen.
What are the origins of the project? Tomas Michaelsson: This drama handles a very sensitive but hot topic: young people being seduced by violent extremism. Wilhelm Behrman pitched the idea to me in late 2014, when Isis were in every newspaper every day and they were releasing their extreme terrorism videos. We then pitched it to SVT, which immediately wanted to start developing it with us.
Why was this a story you wanted to tell? Michaelsson: Wilhelm’s pitch was probably the best I’d ever heard. I still remember how he told it and how I felt. This was a must-tell story dealing with the most complex issues – and at that time, we were still in the middle of it. The timing was right to explore the difficult and complicated topic and understand almost incomprehensible issues around how young Swedes are prepared to go as far as to go to a foreign country and go to war to establish a caliphate.
Wilhelm, how did your newspaper background inspire or influence the story? Wilhelm Behrman: I suppose I learned the importance of research when I was working as a reporter – and to use research from a lot of different sources. I also learned to always search for the individual behind the general story, to write about specific human beings and not ‘groups’ or ‘representatives,’ because one individual will never be the perfect representative of an entire group.
What were the themes you wanted to discuss in the series and how was this achieved? Behrman: The one big theme was: how does radicalisation work and how do we make it fit into the thriller format? People have been radicalised in thousands of ways and we wanted to show some of these different ways. Some have nothing to lose and get recruited in prison, some fall in love with the wrong guy, some find their way to Isis when they find out they share the same political views and enemies, and some just want the adventure.
How did you come to work together and what was your writing process? Niklas Rockström: We are actually cousins but we became friends as grown-ups. And it turned out we both wrote screenplays, so after some years talking about it, we began writing together. Our first project was Before We Die. We always create the storyline together in the writing room and, after that, mostly because of lack of time, we go our separate ways to write the episodes. Behrman: We’re cousins, but we didn’t know each other until we met on a train on the way to see our dying grandmother. We found out that we had chosen the same occupation and quickly became best friends, but it wasn’t until 10 years later that we dared to take the scary step and start working together. Now we have been doing that for eight years. Our process is that one of us comes up with an idea and, if the other one likes it, we build the story together and write a storyline. After that, the one who came up with the idea does most of the scriptwriting.
How much research did you do? What surprised you about the subject or changed the story of the series? Rockström: We did a huge amount of research, as much as possible, as this sensitive story needed a lot more work than any other project I’ve worked on. The research changed the story in the details sometimes, but, as I recall it, not in any bigger sense. Behrman: We have read tons of books and articles about Isis and radicalisation, listened to podcasts and watched documentaries. But most importantly, we’ve had the privilege to interview experts on these subjects and people from inside the Swedish secret service. The most shocking insight we got is how quick these processes can be. Sometimes it just takes a couple of weeks to radicalise a person to the point that he or she will be willing to leave everything and join Isis.
How realistic is the series in terms of the experiences of those living in a caliphate or dealing with religious fundamentalism? Rockström: Kalifat is, of course, a drama and not a documentary. None of us visited Raqqa during the time it was the capital of Isis. That said, the show is still quite realistic. For example, the life Pervin [one of the main characters] lives with all her restrictions is probably not far from the truth. Behrman: Quite realistic. It’s no documentary, of course, but I think we’ve managed to catch the atmosphere you can find in the secretly filmed material we have seen from inside Raqqa. And when it comes to religious matters, we have checked the story with experts on Islam to make it trustworthy.
How did you balance the stories of the five main characters? Behrman: What is important is that when you write the storyline, you work thoroughly so that each one of the lines has its own complete arc in every episode. That doesn’t mean they all have the same weight in all the episodes, but you have to think it through and be prepared to complete the storyline if necessary.
Writing a thriller, how did you try to create tension in the series? Rockström: That is a complex question! To keep it short, when writing the story, it was important to be clear about what was at risk for every character, which probably is the way every thriller is told but perhaps even more important when it came to Kalifat. Behrman: By always, always trying to surprise the audience. If an idea comes too easily to you, it’s probably a cliché and should be discarded.
What were the biggest challenges you faced, either in development or production? Michaelsson: The development was actually quite straightforward. Wilhelm and Niklas had such a well-developed storyline and the first draft of every episode was in really good shape. The production was a bigger challenge in many ways. Usually, a drama recreating the Middle East on screen would be filmed in Morocco or Southern Spain. Luckily, I went to Jordan to shoot a small part of a film in 2017 and established a very good relationship with Jordanian producer Rula Nasser. During the development of Caliphate, I told Rula about it and asked if she thought it would be possible to shoot a TV show about Isis in Jordan and make Amman look like Raqqa.
The biggest challenge was the casting. We, together with SVT, decided early on that we wanted unknown actors, as we were striving for a very authentic look. We didn’t want the audience to see famous faces from other TV shows. However, the actors still had to be top class. Most of the characters are also quite young. So, finding young, unknown, really top-notch talent is a challenge. We spent a lot of time in the casting process to get it right, and it paid off.
How do you hope viewers respond to, or engage with, the series? Michaelsson: I want this to be the most thrilling story they have ever seen. I also want the audience to cry and really feel for and engage with the characters, and for people to ask questions like how and why can someone join those organisations? I have learned a lot during this production but I still don’t really have the answer. To me, this was a show that had to be told with authenticity and the characters had to be multi-dimensional. We wanted the audience to feel they were in the middle of the story.
Subtitles are now a familiar element of many TV dramas, but how are languages changing the stories we watch and the way these shows are made?
Across the world, audiences have become much more relaxed about watching imported foreign-language content. The launch of Channel 4’s global drama platform Walter Presents in January this year was a particular sign of the UK’s new tolerance for subtitles.
But beyond audiences watching dramas from other countries, it is notable how many series now combine multiple languages, such as Netflix drama Narcos, which blends English and Spanish to tell the story of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.
Another example is Canadian series Blood and Water, which is described as a compelling, character-driven crime drama that delves into the secrets and lies of a tight-knit family. The show, which is produced by Breakthrough Entertainment for Omni Television, stands out because it was produced in English, Mandarin and Cantonese.
Nataline Rodrigues, director of original programming for Omni parent Rogers, explains: “Different characters speak in all three languages organically throughout the show. Chinese subtitles are featured when English is spoken and English subtitles appear when Chinese is spoken so the widest possible audience can watch and follow the show.
“We wanted a cross-cultural series for Omni that would resonate with a wider multigenerational and diverse audience. The premise of exploring family secrets allowed for a very relatable and fertile story world that would attract a wider audience – drawing viewers in and keeping them there with a crime story with real twists and turns.”
One of the starting points for the spate of TV series now blending languages was Bron/Broen (aka The Bridge), the crime drama that brought police officers Sweden and Denmark together to solve a murder after a body is found on the Øresund Bridge, which links the two countries.
“The unusual thing with The Bridge is it didn’t start out as a creative idea, it started out as a question. We had difficulties getting into the Danish market. Swedish broadcasters were airing everything Danish but the Danish broadcasters never aired anything Swedish, so we asked ourselves how we could cheat our way into Denmark,” recalls executive producer and Filmlance MD Lars Blomgren. “We sat down with the head of (Swedish pubcaster) SVT and tried to work out a crime drama that organically moved between the two countries because it could be in Danish in Denmark and in Swedish in Sweden. That’s how it all started.”
Seizing the chance to have a drama in two languages, where viewers in Denmark had subtitles for dialogue in Swedish and vice versa, made The Bridge part of a “new era” where the acceptance of subtitles is growing around the world, Blomgren adds.
Three different versions of the script were produced – a Swedish one, a Danish copy and a mixed version. And that’s just one example of the logistical challenges that Blomgren says make cross-border productions as “very difficult.”
He continues: “The upside is the creative side. We’re all interested in our neighbours and we can relate to the differences between the cultures. That’s good for the storytelling. And it’s also good for broadcasters because instead of one broadcaster paying 60% of the budget, you can have two broadcasters paying 30% each so it’s win-win for everyone.
“But it’s also very delicate because you don’t want it to become a Europudding. You don’t want to start bringing in actors just because they’re of a nationality that would bring more money to the table. It’s quite easy to do cross-border for solely financial reasons and we’re trying to stay away from that.”
The Bridge went on to have two adaptations. The first, commissioned by US cable channel FX, transplanted the story to the US-Mexico border, using English and Spanish, and ran for two seasons. The second remake began underwater, at the midpoint of the Channel Tunnel between England and France. Produced by Endemol Shine Group-owned Filmlance’s sister company Kudos (Humans, Broadchurch), The Tunnel was a coproduction between Sky Atlantic in the UK and France’s Canal+. Season one aired in 2013 and season two, called The Tunnel 2: Sabotage, is now on air in Britain.
Having screened The Bridge before it became an international hit and inspired by the idea of exploring Anglo-French relations, Kudos picked up the format for adaptation. But once the show did become a global success, the creative team was wary of leaning too much on the original.
“It was such a good show, it was pointless trying to imitate it. It would have been very uncreative and that’s not how we make programmes,” says Kudos exec producer Manda Levin. “We tried to take the concept and the compass points of the story but, within that, we felt we had to find our own way with it.
“These days with British crime drama, whatever you make, you’re constantly told you’re aping Scandi noir. I find that really frustrating because it’s a lazy way of grouping stories that are visceral, dark and melancholy and saying they’re all borrowing from the same source. Britain’s always had a tradition of making bleak but spiky and interesting crime drama. I didn’t feel that was what we were trying to do. We wanted to make it very French in its own way and very British with the humour.”
The use of language was also important for The Tunnel’s creative team, with Levin asserting that the days of actors speaking English in “funny accents” are long gone.
“Sky Atlantic and Canal+ are ambitious art house channels that you would hope have an audience that’s happy to deal with subtitles,” she says. “For me, those scenes in which the characters are slipping into French and English are the best parts. We always try to say The Tunnel was the first fundamentally bilingual series in the UK. It definitely felt pioneering when we started, although now international drama has become so accessible to audiences, it’s nice to see many more subtitles on mainstream channels than there used to be. There’s been a real shift in what drama commissioners are prepared to commission and what audiences are prepared to watch.”
Following the success of The Bridge, which has run to three seasons with the possibility of a fourth to come, Filmlance’s Blomgren says he has been approached about other series with a cross-border dynamic: “But in so many cases you feel it’s just a construction to finance the production, and that’s not the right way to do it. One border is enough. Once you bring in too many characters from too many nations, you can’t dig deep into characters because you have too many and it’s a very difficult game.”
However, one series that did bring together characters from a number of different nations is The Team, a pan-European crime drama that unites a team of police officers who fight crime throughout the continent.
Created by Peter Thorsboe and Mai Brostrøm (The Eagle, Modus), the series is shot in original languages with a cast headed by Lars Mikkelsen, Jasmin Great and Veerle Baetens. It is produced by Network Movie for ZDF in association with DR and distributed by ZDF Enterprises.
Wolfgang Feind, head of series and international coproductions at ZDF, says the idea for The Team was born out of a desire to follow up The Eagle, in which an Icelandic protagonist pursues criminals across Europe.
“The unique selling point is that The Team is a truly European series in which an organic cast investigates real cases and scours all of Europe to snare the criminals,” he says. “What also makes the programme unique is the use of multiple languages – the immersion in original languages, whether Flemish, Danish, German or European English, is what keeps the investigators connected to one another.”
Although having characters speak in their native language added to the authenticity of the series, Feind says it was not without its challenges. “The implementation of different languages was easy; the challenge for the production consisted rather of the how, when and where our protagonists encounter one another,” he reveals.
“We believe there is a trend to break down all linguistic barriers. Young people today want to watch TV series in their original version. Dubbing stopped convincing them long ago. And let’s face it – it is the reality of our lives that language changes. We mix English and German into ‘Denglish.’ We borrow words from other languages, we make up new terms. We’re creating world-spanning communication in the digital age with all these new forms of language.”
Another Sky-Canal+ coproduction to use multiple languages is The Last Panthers, starring Samantha Morton, John Hurt, Tahar Rahim and Goran Bogdan. The six-part series, produced by Warp Films and Haut et Court, tells a fictional story based on the notorious real-life Pink Panther jewel thieves. It opens with a daring heist before delving into the dark heart of a Europe ruled by a shadowy alliance of gangsters and bankers.
With the action taking place across the UK, France and Serbia, the script called for characters to speak in the corresponding languages. And writer Jack Thorne says this process was not simply about translating his scripts – he also sought a better understanding of the countries in which the action was set.
“The difficult thing was understanding that there are very big cultural differences in how things operate in different countries,” he says. “The French legal system is one of the most complicated systems I’ve ever come across. I was constantly trying to work out who does what in different situations, why certain people can do certain things, and also trying to make that translatable.
“There were other differences to take on board – spending time in Serbia and understanding what Serbian nationalism means and where it comes from. That was a very alien concept to me as a British person but it’s a very different country with a very different history to ours. It’s a country that’s been invaded by every empire that’s ever existed and has had to fight for its identity, so it has a very different sense of itself.”
One multilingual show that moves away from the ‘neighbour’ dynamic of The Bridge and The Tunnel is Jour Polaire (aka Midnight Sun), which sees a French policeman sent to Sweden to investigate the death of a French citizen.
The series’ roots can be found in the partnership between former Atlantique Productions exec Patrick Nebout and Nice Drama’s Henrik Jansson-Schweizer, who developed the plot together more than four years ago. But it was only when writers Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein came on board that it gained traction and was subsequently commissioned by SVT and France’s Canal+.
“You’ve seen a lot of Scandi-German coproductions but you’ve never seen Scandi-French coproductions,” Nebout says. “We felt the timing was right; we knew Canal+ was looking for something to do with Scandinavia. We approached Canal+ and SVT with the idea and both reacted positively from the beginning.”
The mixture of languages used in the series was also important to Nebout, who wanted to keep the series “organic.”
“We have a French cop in Sweden. She should be speaking English when she interacts with the Swedes but when the Swedes talk to each other, they should definitely speak their own language. And when our French cop is reporting back to Paris, she should do that in French,” he explains. “That came to us very naturally. We didn’t want to do something completely in English, because that wasn’t part of the story.
“There’s also a fourth language in the series, Sami. Because of the show’s setting in the far north of Sweden, there are many indigenous Sami characters and they speak their language. It felt very natural. Måns wanted to tell a story about Europe today and we felt it echoed well to have these different languages.”
Jour Polaire also features Arabic, taking the number of languages to five.
The script began in Swedish, before it was translated into English and then French. But why did the producers not want to film it entirely in English, as Atlantique had done previously with Borgia – the papal drama set in Italy?
“It made sense to do Borgia in English because it was a very specific and confined environment with characters that were all in the same culture and universe,” explains Nebout, who left Atlantique to launch his own production company Dramacorp. “When Atlantique did Transporter, that was in English because it was targeted at the English-language market. It’s very international storytelling – it’s an action series.
“A couple of years ago, English was a must if you wanted to enable global export. But at the same time we can see tolerance for subtitled shows is growing all over the place – in France, the UK. And it seems it’s coming to the US, where SundanceTV and other channels are starting to air foreign-language shows.”
If there’s one programme that built its production schedule around the use of multiple languages, it’s Welsh drama Y Gwyll (aka Hinterland, pictured top). The crime series, which has been renewed for a third season, airs in a Welsh-only format on commissioning broadcaster S4C.
But to maximise the opportunity for distribution sales, it was filmed back-to-back in English as well, to create an English-only version and also a bilingual edition. BBC Wales aired the bilingual version, which was also picked up by BBC4.
Gwawr Martha Lloyd, S4C’s drama commissioner, says there were two reasons for producing multiple versions of the same series. First, S4C wanted as many people as possible to be able to watch it, and second, bringing coproducers on board meant a bigger budget that could accommodate higher production values.
“It sounds simpler than it is,” she admits. “It’s quite testing for everybody involved, especially the actors because they have to learn double the words and their performance can vary depending on what language they’re speaking so it’s not literally exactly the same. How you would express yourself in Welsh is quite different to how you would in English. But in production terms, Hinterland isn’t heavy on dialogue, so some things they don’t have to film twice, like scenery or chase sequences.”
But what of the process of combining Welsh and English into a single format? Lloyd says the production team first decided which characters would only speak one language.
“A lot of characters live in remote rural areas so it was easy to believe they’d all speak Welsh together in the BBC Wales/BBC4 version,” she says. “They explored what was credible, what contributed to this mythical feeling that’s created when you’re in this setting. The protagonist is from London so had to speak English. And his colleagues speak Welsh to each other but change when he walks into the room. They had to figure all of that out and also which of the locals would speak Welsh to each other or English.”
Lloyd points to BBC1’s The Missing as another good example of a drama using multiple languages. The show, about a man’s search for his missing son, mixed English and French, as the pair are on holiday in France when the child vanishes.
“They used language very cleverly because sometimes they used subtitles when the characters spoke French, but when they wanted the father (played by James Nesbitt) out of the conversation and to make him frustrated that he didn’t know what was going on, they didn’t use subtitles. That was really clever because it made viewers feel like he felt.
“It was really exciting because it added another dimension that you wouldn’t have had if it was all in the same language.”
S4C is now developing a number of new multi-language dramas that Lloyd says reflect the nature of language in Wales. “I feel a desire to do something that’s multilingual. I’ve enjoyed multilingual dramas over the last few years and we’re in a position where we can do this because of the nature of language in our country. It’s definitely an ambition to get one of those away but we’ll have to see which one or how many.”
While this may be a relatively new path in certain territories, Israeli dramas commonly use multiple languages. Distributor Keshet International’s slate includes several examples, most notably espionage thrillers False Flag (Hebrew and English) and MICE (Russian and Hebrew), plus Arab Labor (Arabic and Hebrew), a comedy-drama that explores the Arab-Jewish cultural divide.
“It has to come naturally from the story,” says Karni Ziv, head of drama for Keshet Media Group. “If either part of the story or the way the character lives is based on a foreign language or culture, it has to be part of it. MICE is about Russian immigrants who live in Israel, so they speak Russian to each other. The most important thing is it reflects real life and Israel’s melting-pot society.”
The use of different languages means Keshet dramas are also finding audiences abroad. “Audiences now are more open to stories from different territories,” Ziv says. “Five or six years ago, language was something that made a difference. Nowadays, you don’t really hear the language. When we discovered very good television from Scandinavia, I ignored the language. I don’t really hear it, as I’m so focused on the story and characters. We are more open now to hearing different languages if it’s part of a brilliant story.”
Midnight Sun’s Nebout notes a common plot device threading these series together – a leading character in a strange place, which puts their language at odds with their location. “The easy thing with these shows is you have a fish out of water so you have a good argument to decide you’re going to shoot in different languages,” he says. “As you can see with The Tunnel and The Bridge, more and more shows are using a mixture of languages. For Europe it makes sense.”
It’s a sign of both broadcasters’ and audiences’ openness to subtitles that multi-language dramas are now commonplace – and that can only encourage an increasingly global production sector to introduce viewers to more diverse and unfamiliar stories in the future.
As the third, ‘best yet’ season of international smash hit The Bridge approaches, Lars Blomgren of coproducer Filmlance explains why the Nordic drama has travelled so well, and reveals the other upcoming dramas on his firm’s slate.
On air in more than 150 countries and providing the inspiration for two international adaptations, it’s hard to deny the impact Nordic noir thriller The Bridge (aka Bron/Broen, pictured above) has had on television screens around the world.
So when the series’ executive producer says the forthcoming third season is the best yet, plenty of viewers are bound to get very excited.
The Swedish/Danish coproduction, created by Hans Rosenfeldt, saw detectives from both countries unite to solve a grisly murder after the discovery of a body on the Øresund Bridge, which connects the two nations.
Produced by Sweden’s Filmlance and Denmark’s Nimbus Film, it first aired on Denmark’s DR and SVT in Sweden in 2011, and its sequel followed in 2013.
This autumn, viewers can look forward to the third instalment. Plot details are a closely guarded secret, but Filmlance MD Lars Blomgren says there is plenty to be excited about.
“When I look at the third season of The Bridge, it’s just brilliant,” he says. “It’s the best season ever. In the first two seasons of The Bridge, you saw things from (Danish detective) Martin’s side. We changed it for the third season and had the focus on (Swedish cop) Saga.
“Sofia Helin (who plays Saga) is giving the performance of a lifetime. It’s one of the best performances I have ever seen.
“We have always tried to keep a balance between how complicated the case is and keeping the audience’s attention. The producers and writer Hans Rosenfeldt are a fantastic team.”
The international success of The Bridge led to two remakes – The Bridge on US cable network FX, which transplants the action to the US-Mexico border, and The Tunnel, a UK/French coproduction that centres on the Channel Tunnel.
The former was cancelled last year after two seasons, while The Tunnel is set to return for a second season – called The Tunnel: Debris – in early in 2016 on Sky Atlantic and Canal+.
Blomgren says the new run of The Tunnel “looks brilliant. I’m really happy and proud.” However, he is disappointed that the US remake didn’t get another season.
“One of the best things about the show was they made a late decision to switch the location of the story from the Canada-US border to the Mexico-US border,” he explains. “It took their show in a completely different direction to ours and it meant they didn’t really compete with us. It was one of the few shows in the US that was politically relevant. I think they were really close to picking up a third season.
“The Bridge is the perfect remake model. I’m not in favour of cross-border series because often there’s less depth to the story. But if you take two neighbours, you will always be in conflict and have close relationships. Wherever you put this, it could work. There’s room for a Hispanic version – the question is where you make it.”
With competition for scripted hits more fierce than ever, dramas are being seen as the way to build a brand. And the cheapest way to do this is with returning series. No wonder, then, that with four returning dramas on its slate in 2015, it’s been an “unprecedented” year at Filmlance.
As well as The Bridge, the Stockholm-based company is also back with Beck, its long-running TV movie franchise based on the detective novels by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.
Filmlance is also producing season five of Morden i Sandhamn (aka Murder in Sandhamn), the TV4 crime drama based on the books by Viveca Sten and described as “Midsomer Murders on an archipelago,” as well as the latest instalment in the Arne Dahl series, another crime adaptation.
“It’s easier to get a second season than a new series on air,” says Blomgren. “All over the world, with binge-watching and changing consumer habits, it’s almost like the audience doesn’t want to commit to a new series unless there’s a second season.
“Follow-up seasons are becoming more important and it takes time to build a brand. If they’re good, you fall in love with the characters and want to hang out with them more. Currently, it’s so much more difficult to start from scratch and create a new universe. With The Bridge, it’s easier to talk about the reasons for changes in the new season than talk about something completely new. You can do major changes and still retain the same level of quality.”
Will there be a fourth season of The Bridge? “I think there’s going to be more,” Blomgren says. “If you look at the Scandinavian market, there’s a lot of talk about Scandi noir, but the most expensive stuff travels. I don’t think any broadcaster would say ‘we don’t want to do more than three seasons.’ As long as you can keep the same quality and keep the same passion, then I think it’s fine.”
One new series on the books at Filmlance is Spring Tide (aka Springfloden), which began production last month. Based on the opening novel in a new trilogy penned by Arne Dahl writers Rolf Börjlind and Cilla Börjlind, the first 10×45’ series will air on SVT in March 2016. The other titles, Den tredje rösten (The Third Voice) and Svart gryning (Black Dawn), will also be adapted for television, Blomgren says.
He adds: “80% of primetime television is local now – high-end drama that’s local. That’s the thing that travels too.
“It’s very difficult for new scripted projects to break out as it’s easier to order another season. Some countries also prefer to adapt. They see scripted formats as the same as entertainment formats.
“It’s a great time for drama. People are also opening up to subtitles. We have to be grateful to The Killing (aka Danish crime drama Forbrydelsen). Without it, there’s no The Bridge.”