After producing Quicksand, the first Swedish original drama for Netflix, producer FLX turned its attention to the financial world for eight-part thriller Fartblinda (Blinded).
Based on Carolina Neurath’s book of the same name, it stars Julia Ragnarsson as 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 married CEO Peder Rooth (Matias Varela).
In this DQTV interview, FLX MD Pontus Edgren and head of development and drama programmes Fatima Varhos discuss their decision to make a financial drama, something never seen before in Sweden.
They also talk about why they added the romance between Bea and Peder to the story and the dramatic transformation Ragnarsson underwent for the role.
Fartblinda is produced by FLX for C More and TV4, and distributed by All3Media International.
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.”
Based on the bestselling novel, Störst av Allt (Quicksand) sees a teenager put on trial for murder in the wake of a high-school shooting. DQ hears from the creative team behind Netflix’s first original Swedish drama.
The opening moments of Swedish drama Störst av Allt (Quicksand) are nothing less than chilling. From a black screen, the sound of half-a-dozen shots ring out, before the camera hovers over the bloodied bodies of the victims of a school shooting. When it comes to rest, with screams still ringing in the background, it is on Maja Norberg, sitting frozen in a chair, blood staining her jumper, a discarded rifle at her feet.
Apparently the only survivor of the horror, Maja is swiftly taken away by police, cleaned up and charged with murder. But what really happened in that room – and what was the role played by her boyfriend, Sebastian Fagerman?
Over six episodes, the drama jumps back and forth between Maja’s police interrogation in the present and a past exploration of her relationship with Sebastian – how he swept her off her feet before she was seemingly corrupted by his dysfunctional lifestyle and family – until it is revealed whether she is in fact guilty of the shocking crime.
Notably, Quicksand is Netflix’s first Swedish original series, with producer FLX bagging the rights to Malin Persson Giolito’s bestselling novel amid fierce competition.
“There’s a first time for everything, and you don’t know what it’s going to be like when you work with a company like Netflix for the first time,” says producer Fatima Varhos (Sanctuary, Trespassing Bergman). “I was a bit worried in the beginning, because you don’t know how it could turn out, but Netflix came into Sweden and could easily see we didn’t do high-end drama with young adults in the lead. I’m sure other channels in Sweden would be delighted to show this series, but I’m not sure they would have had the courage to commission it. They wouldn’t have put as much money or trust into this as Netflix.”
Fellow producer Frida Asp (Bonusfamiljen, The Simple Heist) says Netflix recognised the need to make everything “bigger” when it came to sets, the number of extras and key scenes. “Had we made it with a Swedish broadcaster, there might have been a different way of doing it,” she continues. “This series could be broadcast on Swedish television but the method of making it would have been different. I really think it was a perfect series for Netflix and that’s why it was quite easy to work with them.”
The book attracted huge international acclaim due to its young female perspective, with the story told entirely from Maja’s point of view and carried to its conclusion with increasing tension – elements the producers wanted to keep in the series. Asp and Varhos worked with head writer Camilla Ahlgren and lead director Per-Olav Sørensen to bring the novel to the screen, while Lisa Farzaneh (Arne Dahl, Det Som Göms i Snö) also directs. “It’s very close to the book, and that was important to us,” Asp says. “It is a true gift to be able to make it into a series.”
FLX had approached Ahlgren about other projects, but the writer had been busy overseeing Swedish-Danish crime drama Bron/Broen (The Bridge). However, when she was sent the novel, “I knew I wanted to adapt it into a TV series,” she recalls. “From the first page, I thought it was something special. I had pictures in my head and I was so grabbed by the main character. I couldn’t stop reading the book. I had an idea of how I wanted to do it, from Maja’s point of view. This is her story and I wanted to keep it that way.”
Ahlgren opened a writers room with Veronica Zacco and Alex Haridi to work on the scripts, based on the “clear idea” she had for the series. Giolito, a lawyer, was also involved, offering greater insight into the ideas and themes of the book and helping to read drafts.
But working with Netflix was no different from her experience with Swedish pubcaster SVT on The Bridge, she says. “The only difference is we had a lot of Skype meetings,” she jokes. “We had discussions but they trusted me. I also like to work with producers because they help me in my work and add things to my story and help me to do it better. It’s teamwork, and that worked very well.”
Central to the series is the love story between Maja (Hanna Ardéhn) and Sebastian (Felix Sandman), whose increasing influence over his girlfriend as their relationship develops is explored through flashbacks. “Maja is very controlled and the good girl at school,” Ahlgren says. “Suddenly, she’s with someone who can break the rules and is exciting. I can imagine her feeling that she’s now in another world. He also really needs her; she’s the only one he can rely on. One of the themes is about absent parents and dysfunctional families. That psychology is very interesting. It’s a very strong love story but there are a lot of different things in it.”
Director Sørensen was one of the producers’ first choices to steer the series, owing to his reputation for suspense dramas, and he too had read and loved the book. “It was a perfect match,” Asp says. “He has a certain method of working with actors. That made it great for both the amateurs and the experienced actors. He had a way of making it feel authentic, real and alive. He’s a brilliant director.”
Ahead of Sørensen’s appointment, just three months before production began, several key decisions had already been made. The producers decided Quicksand would be shot in the affluent Stockholm suburb of Djursholm, where the novel is set. Casting also began early: by the time Sørensen arrived, “we had seen 1,000 Majas,” Asp reveals. “When he joined, we said, ‘Here are 20 we think have potential.’ So we didn’t lose too much time because he was late joining. We had huge time pressure, but I feel we have been in control of the situation the entire time. It’s a huge project but we did the things in the right order and always felt confident in our decisions.”
Despite the number of hopefuls, only one truly stood out for the role of Maja. “Hanna has this face and with it she can express so many different kinds of emotions,” Varhos says. “We needed somebody who could do all of these faces – from so happy to extremely dark and sad – and also carry the part. She’s been in the picture every day of the shoot. She’s done an incredible job. She has incredible strength and she’s a great actor.”
Complications on set included finding a yacht that appears in episode one and filming spectacular party scenes that take place in Sebastian’s luxurious family home.
“Making parties in a way that feels real in a movie or series is really difficult,” Varhos explains. “We wanted to get the tone right, we wanted it to be realistic. Happily, the parties in the series came out great.”
Though the ending of the book stands strong in the series, which is exec produced by Pontus Edgren and Martina Håkansson, Ahlgren says it was important to keep viewers guessing over Maja’s guilt right up to the conclusion. How to achieve that was a discussion that kept the producers and writers engaged throughout the drama’s development and even during the editing process. Netflix also brought in an additional exec producer who hadn’t read the book or seen any of the scripts to cast a fresh eye over the drama.
Most importantly, however, Ahlgren believes the series will capture audiences around the world when it launches in April, with a story rooted in Swedish culture. “It has been very intense. We worked very fast but everyone was in it,” she adds. “The most exciting challenge was making the first show for Netflix. I’m proud it’s their first original Swedish series.”
While on the surface Störst av Allt (Quicksand) appears to be the cut-and-dried story of whether a high-school teenager is guilty of carrying out a killing spree, the series is far more complicated than that.
It’s that underlying complexity that drew lead director Per-Olav Sørensen to the project. “It’s a story about murder; there’s an investigation going on; it’s a heavy love story; it’s a drama about growing up; it’s a court drama; it’s a political comment on a segregated Sweden,” he explains. “But in all this, we portray a young woman pushed to take impossible choices in her young life. Finding a storytelling balance in all this is fascinating work.”
Sørensen worked closely with head writer Camilla Ahlgren to ensure that by the time he was on set, “her intentions for the story and every single scene are in my DNA.” She was also just a phone call away should he need her advice, with the script still open for rewrites deep into filming.
The director says the show presented him with a unique challenge due to the fact the novel is written like a long monologue purely from the perspective of Maja, the accused at the heart of the story. Early on, he ruled out using voiceovers to convey her inner thoughts, instead using close-ups to reveal the facial expressions that betray Maja’s true emotions.
“We wanted the camera to be as close to her, to her eyes, to her smile, to her thoughts as possible,” he says. “Maja is the focal point of our storytelling and we did not walk away from this at all. Maja is at the centre of every scene. The young actor, Hanna Ardéhn, gave an out-of-this-world performance. I am forever grateful for her courage, generosity and talent.”
Scenes were shot with two or three cameras at once, with long takes that allowed the actors an unusual amount of freedom. “The actors acted in super-realistic surroundings and were always ‘on’ camera. They should never find the camera; the camera should find them. And my DOP, Ulf Brantås, was not interested in perfect framing. He and I were interested in framing the situation.”
Sørensen’s earlier series, including Nobel and Kampen om opTungtvannet (The Heavy Water War, aka The Saboteurs) are also available on Netflix. The director says making Quicksand directly with the streamer was a “great experience,” adding: “The Netflix producers and their team were extremely well prepared. They gave excellent feedback, we had good and meaningful discussions along the way, and I really felt the series we locked was a director’s cut.”
Swedish comedy-drama Bonusfamiljen (The Bonus Family) became an instant hit when it debuted on SVT this year. With a third season already commissioned, co-creators Clara and Felix Herngren reveal how the series was inspired by their own relationship and why they think it can repeat its success overseas.
In Sweden – surely one of the most politically correct countries in the world – it’s no longer appropriate to say ‘step dad’ or ‘step mum’ because the phrases are seen to have negative connotations. So the term ‘bonus dad’ or ‘bonus mum’ has become common parlance.
Bonusfamiljen (The Bonus Family) is a Swedish comedy-drama that follows four characters who have gone through separations as they start new relationships with new partners and all the challenges this entails, from moving in together, coping with exes, raising each other’s kids, having new kids and so on.
Clara Herngren had the idea for the show, which launched earlier this year, when she found herself in this situation with husband and co-creator Felix Herngren, a famous Swedish comedian, actor and director, whose company, FLX, also produced the series.
Finding the pressures of sharing two families immensely challenging, Clara went to see a therapist and this eventually inspired her to fulfil a lifetime’s ambition: to become a therapist herself.
Overwhelmed by the number of people in bonus families who came to see her with the same problems she had faced, she soon realised it was a subject that resonated. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, I have to do a TV series about this,” she recalls, speaking at the Berlin Prix Europa festival, where The Bonus Family was nominated in the best drama series category. “I’d spent so long looking for the perfect drama and here it was, right in front of me.”
With Felix directing and collaborating with Calle Marthin and Moa Herngren (his sister), who is also in a bonus family, they formed a writers’ room and set to work. The result is a beautifully executed bitter-sweet comedy that opens a window on modern family life.
At the centre are Lisa and Patrik (played by Vera Vitali and Erik Johansson), a couple who both have children from previous relationships and now live together to create their own family. Viewers also meet their exes, played by Petra Mede and Fredrik Hallgren, and Lisa and Patrick’s therapists, played by Johan Ulveson and Ann Petrén.
It has proved very popular on Sweden’s public broadcaster, SVT. Such shows usually get between 700,000 to 800,000 viewers but Bonusfamiljen drew around a million, closer to the expected ratings of crime shows that traditionally are more popular in Sweden. Netflix distributes the series, which returns for a second season in January, to more than 100 countries outside of Scandinavia.
Making Bonusfamiljen, which is filmed in Sundbyberg, just outside of Stockholm, created a new set of issues for the husband-and-wife team. “We tried to work together once and we fought immediately, so we promised each other not to work together again,” admits Felix, but this time the process was different and turned out to be therapeutic. “This had a healing effect, because we could talk about someone else’s relationship that was exactly like ours, but not ours,” he continues. “From being a bit horrifying at first, it went to being something we talked about every minute; when we were waking up, eating breakfast, until late at night.”
“We get into character, we scream, we cry,” says Clara. “Felix was almost crying sometimes when he directed as it was so close to our real lives. Talking about these characters and asking, ‘Why did you feel like that?’ or ‘Why did you do that?’ I think gave both of us a better understanding of each other.”
Like all great ideas in the TV industry, Bonusfamiljen will get the remake treatment. NBC, which aired Welcome to Sweden (another FLX production, from US comedian Greg Poehler, about his experiences of moving to his Swedish girlfriend’s homeland) is developing an English-language version. It will be written and executive produced by David Walpert, (who has worked on series such as New Girl and Will & Grace). In Europe, the remake rights have also been sold into Germany and France.
The success of Bonusfamiljen abroad will also be interesting in the context of the region’s most famous export, Scandi noir. Can Swedish comedy travel in the same way that crime shows such as Wallander, Beck and Arne Dahl have?
“Not pure Swedish comedy,” says Felix, “because it’s too local, but a mixture between the two, drama and comedy, could work abroad I think.” He certainly knows this area, as he is very well known in Sweden for Solsidan (The Sunny Side), a series he starred in and co-created that revolves around Alex (played by Felix) and his partner who are expecting their first child as they move to Alex’s childhood home.
He has also had success with the film The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window & Disappeared, which he directed, and its sequel. Both were coproduced by Netflix, which streams the films outside of Scandinavia and Germany.
Swapping the male leads of the original 80s Swedish series and an earlier book on which it is based, The Simple Heist taps into how gender roles have changed over the years, in the same way Bonusfamiljen explores how family life is changing.
“Comedy that circles around how humans are, how families and relationships work, can travel quite well,” Felix believes.
Clara, meanwhile, is too busy with her real bonus family and the upcoming third season of the series, which will begin filming in April and air in 2019, to worry about success overseas. “I have no time and fall asleep by nine o’clock immediately,” she says. Besides, she was never a big fan of Scandi noir: “You don’t need murders and stuff like that; everyday life between people is so interesting.”
A doctor and a teacher approaching retirement decide to secure their futures by robbing a bank in Swedish comedy drama Enkelstöten. Executive producer Pontus Edgren tells DQ about the decision to swap men for women in the lead roles.
When it comes to adaptations, there are a few techniques you might expect to see when a novel is being prepared for the screen. The story will be tightened or expanded to suit the number of episodes and, consequently, new characters might be added, or existing ones omitted altogether.
In the case of forthcoming Swedish series Enkelstöten (A Simple Heist), however, two women take the lead in roles that were originally written as men. Based on a book by Tomas Arvidsson, it follows a teacher and a doctor who decide to rob a bank.
It was first translated to the screen in a 1980 miniseries, which faithfully adapted the story. But in a new six-part series airing this autumn on TV4, those lead roles have been switched and aged up, as two women in their 60s decide to carry out the heist.
The plot centres on Jenny Bengtsson and Cecilia Svensson, who enjoy a middle-class life in the Swedish town of Kalmar. But with retirement approaching and their bank accounts somewhat lacking, they decide to rob a bank in Stockholm.
The series follows the duo as they weigh up the pros and cons of the bank job, eventually deciding to go through with it, and goes on to detail the heist itself and the aftermath.
But as changing the lead characters might suggest, A Simple Heist isn’t exactly a traditional adaptation.
“We’ve taken basic core elements of the story but to a great extent we have created a new story,” executive producer Pontus Edgren says. “It’s still about a teacher and a doctor who feel that life has been unfair to them. One has gone through a divorce and doesn’t get much out of it economically, and the other has invested her money very badly and her husband doesn’t know that the money with which they were supposed to buy a house in France has virtually gone. They also have big demands on them, from parents and students to patients and their bosses, so they’re squeezed from many different positions.
“All that is similar to the basic story, but there’s a new element in our first episode where the doctor has a patient who’s a criminal and she tells him he’s going to die soon from cancer, so he confides in her that he was going to commit a bank robbery in Stockholm – and says she should do it. Of course, she says she can’t do it because she’s a 58-year-old doctor, but he says that’s exactly why she should do it – because she’s never going to get caught. That’s how it starts.”
It’s a story that is personal to Edgren, MD and co-founder of producer FLX, as Arvidsson is a family friend. The exec is also a native of the town in south-east Sweden where the story plays out.
From the outset three years ago, when FLX picked up rights for the series, women were at its heart. TV4 immediately liked the premise, and placed a commission a year later. The series had its world premiere at Série Series earlier in 2017.
“For this specific series, we really wanted to build the story first, to really set something up that had a good driving force forward and with the twists and turns viewers would find exciting and suspenseful to watch,” Edgren explains. “Then we added a layer of comedy in the script and in the direction too. The original story, about two people with an academic background who become criminals, is set up for comedy and the actors were very carefully picked because they have a great track record of doing great comedy but they are also great actors. They’re not comedians, they’re just actors who can handle comedy.”
However, the actors who came to fill the leading roles, Lotta Tele (Jenny) and Sissela Kyle (Cecilia), weren’t originally in line for the show. “In the very beginning, when we first started looking at having female leads, we looked at them being around 40, but we couldn’t find exactly the right dynamic between the two so we moved up the age and changed the premise a bit to explain why they decided to commit this crime. Then we found them quite quickly.
“We knew Sissela and Lotta very well. Sissela, particularly, has done a lot of comedy and has proven herself to be a great comedic actor. Lotta has more recently gone into that genre and is perfect for this. They’re quite different characters.
“The part Lotte plays is more careful and reluctant; she’s not the one who’s driving this. She’s very hesitant and against the idea in the first episode, whereas Sissela’s character is the driving force. She’s the doctor who gets the idea from her patient. They’ve known each other since they were kids and Sissela is the one with the energy and the drive. It was perfect for what they’re good at. It’s a very good dynamic between the two.”
The limited budgets available in Sweden mean productions are largely filmed in and around Stockholm. But for A Simple Heist, the production team was keen to film as much as possible on location in Kalmar, a five-hour drive from the capital.
“When you produce drama or comedy in Sweden, too often you have to stay around Stockholm because you don’t have the finances to leave the area,” says Edgren, who notes that external shooting on location was combined with interior shots in Stockholm. “So that was a challenge to us because we wanted to stay true to the story. This small town is also an important element of the story. People know each other and what they’re up to; people gossip and talk and you’re never really alone. It’s much more difficult to hide things from others and that’s an important part of the story, so that’s why it takes place in a small town.”
As Nordic noir continues to evolve, A Simple Heist stands out as another example of how the region is pushing beyond the gritty, grisly crime dramas that viewers around the world have come to know and love. FremantleMedia International is selling the six-parter globally.
“With lots of brutal murders, trafficking and paedophiles [in Nordic noir], the international audience might get a horrific view of how we’re actually coping here [in Scandinavia],” Edgren says, “so I think, from a very general standpoint, if we can show ourselves and show the world that we can also make lighter series with hope and joy, that’s what motivates us. The combination of comedy and suspense is great if you can manage it.”
All six episodes of the show have now been delivered to TV4, ahead of its launch later this autumn. This is unlikely to be the last time viewers will meet Jenny and Cecilia, however. “TV4 believes very strongly in this series and has commissioned development for season two,” Edgren adds. “We’re going to start writing after the summer. We’re hopeful there will be opportunities for them to commit crimes again!”