Tag Archives: Sagafilm

Political ambitions

In Icelandic drama The Minister, an unconventional politician with a hidden health condition rises to become prime minister. Star Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, writer Jónas Margeir Ingólfsson and director Nanna Kristin Magnúsdóttir tell DQ about making the series.

If viewers were delighted by the surprise announcement of a fourth season of Bafta-winning Danish political drama Borgen, their joy was tempered by the fact it isn’t due to be delivered until 2022. Before then, however, another drama is set to throw audiences into the midst of Scandinavian politics, charting one man’s unlikely rise to the role of prime minister.

That journey may be where Icelandic eight-parter The Minister veers away from Borgen, in which Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen) must juggle her personal and family life with as much delicacy as coalition politics.

In The Minister, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (Trapped) plays Benedikt Ríkhardsson, a maverick and an idealist with a unique take on politics who surfs a wave of popular discontent to become chairman of the Independence Party and Iceland’s prime minister.

However, Benedikt has bipolar disorder, a condition that triggers extreme mood swings from depression to mania. As his mental health progressively worsens, his team and their allies are forced to endanger both the stability of the government and their private lives as some choose to hide the illness and others abuse it.

“It’s a great role,” Ólafsson tells DQ. “First of all, there’s the aspect of Benedikt starting his political career. He hasn’t been a part of politics, even though he’s very knowledgable about it. He’s never actually been part of that machine. Another aspect is he’s a man who goes through a manic episode while in a quite powerful position in society, and we see the effects of that both on society as a whole but also his policies and the policies of his party.

“Then there’s the effect it has on his relationship with his wife, and the fact they are going to have their first child. They’ve been trying to have a baby for some time and they haven’t been able to. Those three things combined make it a very interesting role and something I really want to be a part of. Plus it’s well written, I loved the directors and everything was right.”

Jónas Margeir

The Minister, which will debut on Iceland’s RUV in September, has been seven years in the making for writers Birkir Blær Ingólfsson, Björg Magnúsdóttir and Jónas Margeir Ingólfsson, who presented the show at France’s Série Series festival in 2018.

Ingólfsson says the initial idea was to create a political drama about a man suffering from bipolar disorder. “In itself, it is an absolutely horrific condition and something to be taken quite seriously, but we thought it was also such a great embodiment of the Icelandic nation and the national soul, because we keep going up into a manic episode and down into a depression and back up again,” he explains.

“We thought this was something that was really fun to play around with while writing the show, and all these great ideas kept coming to us while we figured it out. Then we felt it was a universal theme as well and it was a good story with a brilliant character that Darri portrays wonderfully.

“We started writing this in 2013, so we’ve put a lot of work into it. What we were dealing with initially in the writers room was this character; this humble, sincere, serene man going into a manic episode while trying to face all of these really fundamental issues in politics, both domestically and internationally.

“While he’s trying to think outside the box, the legal and political system is constantly trying to put constraints on him. That was a great conflict to work with and to have as the main thread throughout the series. It was seven years of that. It was a lot of fun, and now we’re very happy it’s been brought to the screen.”

Produced by Sagafilm (Stella Blomkvist) and distributed by Cineflix Rights, The Minister’s cast also includes Aníta Briem as Benedikt’s wife and TV news station chief Steinunn Þorgeirsdóttir; Þuríður Blær Jóhannsdóttir as Hrefna Hallgrímsdóttir, political advisor to the PM; Thor Kristjánsson as Benedikt’s party ally Hallgrímur Tómasson (Grímur); Elva Ósk Ólafsdóttir as Valgerður Oddsdóttir (Vala), chair of the PM’s coalition party; and Oddur Júlíusson as TV news reporter Óttar Blöndal. Behind the camera are directors Nanna Kristin Magnúsdóttir (Happily Never After) and Arnór Pálmi Arnarson (Ligeglad).

Magnúsdóttir says she was intrigued by the challenge of brining Benedikt to the screen, as well as seeing the political landscape in Iceland from his unique perspective.

“I had known of the script for a long time so I was very honoured when I was asked to be one of the directors,” she says. “It’s a huge production for Iceland, so that was also exciting and challenging. I thought I would have something to say in this team and it worked out well, both with the actors and the scriptwriters.”

Magnúsdóttir’s preparation involved lots of discussions with the writers and Ólafsson about how they might present Benedikt on camera, with an ambition to externalise what is going on in his mind. “How do you show a bipolar man? You can show it by acting, but you cannot just show it by acting. It’s visual also, so we did everything to help him [on set] and in the editing room with the music composer in post-production,” she says.

Ólafur Darri Ólafsson portrays the prime minister of Iceland in The Minister

At the beginning, it’s not clear Benedikt is suffering from any health problems, coming across as an idealistic outsider who threatens to shake up the political establishment. His promises lead to an improbable election win that installs him as Iceland’s prime minister. But once he is in office, the series charts the gradual escalation of a manic episode.

“We see it though his ideas, which become more irresponsible. His decisions are more rash and taken on a whim as the series progresses, so we use that as a tool to see how his mania is escalating,” Ingólfsson says. “There are also beautiful tricks done by the directors and the actors to portray that beautifully.”

Ólafsson notes of his character: “He is different and unconventional. No one close to him really knows he has the potential to become so sick, so it’s a huge surprise to everyone around him, including himself in some ways. He is hard to figure out in the beginning and, with his mania, he becomes paranoid, feels he is better than others and more daring than others and that people are holding him back.

“There are political leaders working today I am not convinced are fully sane but they have a lot of power. I can imagine being part of the establishment and having to work with someone who does not respect the rules or is a loose cannon. It could be very difficult but also very dangerous. In many ways, we explore that in the show.”

Playing a charismatic politician who walks the fine line between madness and brilliance was made doubly challenging for the actor by the fact that the eight episodes were not filmed linearly, meaning he had to bounce back and forth between Benedikt’s various states of mind.

“Usually in Iceland, and on this project, we don’t have the luxury of shooting in blocks as you would if you were shooting in the US or the UK, where you would shoot the first two episodes and the next two and the next two,” Ólafsson explains.

Nanna Kristin Magnúsdóttir

“We had to shoot all eight in sync, at the same time. We tried to push as much as we could from the second half [of the season] later in the schedule, but that wasn’t always possible. You have to work really closely with your directors and your script supervisor. It was really challenging, but it was a lot of fun. Good work has to challenge you, but there also has to be enjoyment. I loved it. I hope I do it justice.”

The actor was particularly mindful of avoiding stereotypes of mental illness, and bipolar disorder in particular. “It’s such an easy thing to do badly,” he says. “We really wanted to be respectful and not act according to stigmas or prejudices but, at the same time, we wanted to explore what happens when people start getting ill with it. I also love the love story between him and his wife and their family life, which is beautiful.”

The Minister marks the first project for the trio of writers, who have spent years plotting and crafting the story. “Benedikt as a character is very idealistic and he is trying to save politics from itself. But the underlying conflict in the story is that politicians don’t want to be saved by an idealist,” says Ingólfsson.

“It was a question of how you portray that through someone who is gradually escalating into mania. You have to show that with respect because it is a life-threatening illness people all over the world suffer from, but you still have to make it entertaining in the incredibly harsh setting of politics. That was the challenging part of writing the script.”

Meanwhile, the directors were tasked with ensuring Benedikt was portrayed with an even hand, showing the good and bad sides of the newly installed political leader to ensure he is not too “holy.”

“We can’t just tell a story of this illness and how this man is victimised by it,” Magnúsdóttir says. “We have to be truthful to it – it affects many people around him because he acts like a healthy person wouldn’t do.”

Magnúsdóttir’s previous project saw her write, star in, produce and direct Pabbahelgar (Happily Never After), in which she plays a marriage counsellor whose life is turned upside down when she discovers her husband’s affair. This show, coupled with The Minister, gives Ólafsson the view that Icelandic drama is now branching out from crime dramas such as Trapped, The Valhalla Murders and Case, much in the way its Scandi neighbours have steered away from Nordic noir in recent years.

The team behind the show have strived to create an accurate depiction of bipolar disorder

“We’re seeing all kinds of different material we haven’t usually seen coming from Iceland, and that makes me happy,” Ólafsson admits. “It’s great we have our crime series. Trapped is something I’m really proud of but it’s also a lot of fun doing something like this, about a prime minister who has bipolar disorder and about women reevaluating their lives when they are halfway through [in Happily Never After], and so on. There are a lot of series now in development in Iceland that are really interesting. We’re going to see a lot more diversity coming out of Iceland.

“I feel the world is opening up to different series. The world is opening up to women getting older and I love that we’re now seeing, even in Hollywood, actresses who are 50 and 60 getting great roles. We need to make more stories about disabled people and involve more disabled actors. It’s really important and the audience is definitely out there.”

And when viewers watch The Minister, how should they feel about Benedikt? Ólafsson wants people to be conflicted by the character and his actions, but also to come away with a greater understanding of bipolar disorder. “People will feel sympathy not only for him but also for the people around him. That’s what I would like people to take away from it,” he says.

Ingólfsson concludes: “In politics, we invest in people by voting for them. They become our leaders and our politicians, and very often they turn out to be something different from what we expected. I suppose the viewers will have the same experience with Benedikt. You are immensely invested in him, he’s almost holy at the beginning, but then he turns out to be something other than you expected. That’s the feeling I would like the audience to experience: ‘I can’t believe I supported this guy.’”

tagged in: , , , , ,

Enigmatic TV

Based on the book of the same name, The Flatey Enigma is an Icelandic mystery drama about Johanna (Lara Johanna Jonsdottir, Sense8), a mother who returns to home to bury her father.

After the funeral, she picks up his research into an ancient manuscript that posits a riddle pointing to the resting place of a Viking lord. She then continues his work to solve the puzzle, as police arrive on the island following the murder of someone else who was interested in the riddle.

In this DQTV interview, executive producer Kjartan Thor Thordarson introduces the series and talks about how it offers a viewers a slower pace and alternative visual style to other Scandinavian noir series.

The Flatey Enigma is produced by Sagafilm and Reykjavik Films for Icelandic public broadcaster RUV. Sky Vision is the distributor.

tagged in: , , , ,

Ice queen

Poldark’s Heida Reed takes centre stage in Stella Blómkvist, a super-stylised Icelandic drama that is set to add a new dimension to Nordic noir. DQ chats to the actor and the key players behind the series.

When it comes to Nordic noir, there are certain traits viewers have come to expect. Moody visuals are often set against dark, foreboding landscapes, creating a style that has become synonymous with Scandinavian crime dramas like Wallander, Forbrydelsen (The Killing), Trapped and Bron/Broen (The Bridge).

But a forthcoming Icelandic drama starring Poldark’s Heida Reed looks set to breathe new life into the genre with a radical, heightened and heavily stylised look that marks it out from anything that has come before. Imagine Sin City or Marvel’s Jessica Jones filmed in Reykjavík.

Stella Blómkvist follows the exploits of the titular lawyer across three feature-length instalments – The Murder at the Ministry, The Murder at Swan Lake and The Murder at Harpa. The first film sees Stella hired to defend a low-life thug accused of murder, but she soon finds herself plunged into a violent political conspiracy that threatens Iceland’s very future.

“This is not another Scandi noir,” says director Óskar Thór Axelsson (Black’s Game, Trapped). “I like to call it ‘neo-noir.’ It’s more playful and is set in a parallel world. We’re not trying to be super naturalistic, as you would be in Scandi noir. It’s more stylised and we’re trying to have fun with it.”

Lead writer Jóhann Ævar Grímsson adds: “With the noir thing, I’ve been wary of the word because it’s being used for almost anything Scandinavian these days. Political drama Borgen has been called Scandi noir when it’s just Scandi. We are not following the Scandi noir rules, we’re going back to the roots of noir.

Stella Blómkvist stars Heida Reed as the eponymous femme fatale

“We’ve got an unreliable narrator, voiceovers, flashbacks, harsh lighting and all the trappings of the noir format. It goes against the typical Scandi noir format – when there’s so much of it, you want to go in a new direction.”

The show is based on a character created by a mysterious, anonymous author, who shares the same pen name as the lead character. The first episode is based on book one in the series, with two new stories completing the trio. The project has been developed by producer Sagafilm for two-and-a-half years, with Simínn (Iceland Telecom) and Scandi SVoD platform Viaplay on board as broadcasters. Red Arrow International is distributing the series.

From the outset, the creative team sought to replicate the Sherlock format of three feature-length episodes, as opposed to one 10-episode story, for example, in another bid to shake up the Nordic noir format.

“I’ve been writing a crime series in Iceland called Pressa [The Press] and experimented with the format there, but with that show we mostly focus on longer stories,” Grímsson says. “I thought it would be more fun to have shorter bursts of stories. We’re mimicking Sherlock, a show we really like. It’s a perfect vehicle for it.”

Working together in a small writers room, Grímsson, Nanna Kristín Magnúsdóttir and Andri Óttarsson stripped down the first Blómkvist book, threw out what they didn’t need and filled in the rest. Series director Axelsson was also a regular presence in
the room.

“Stella is almost all of the things you don’t want to see in female characters – she’s crass, rude, cold-hearted, inconsiderate,” Grímsson explains of the title character. “She’s sexually promiscuous, drinks and does whatever she pleases. It’s a fun character to work on.”

Director Óskar Thór Axelsson (left) with DOP Árni Filippusson

Axelsson picks up: “She’s a detective and a femme fatale, so she’s a super-interesting character. We had some discussion about the tone and where to place it early on, and that was something I really liked.

“Creating the look for Stella was more in the lighting, the production design and the acting. We definitely go for more intense angles than you would go for normally because it’s a noir. Some scenes we would design to be energetic, so I knew I had to speed up or shoot it in a particular way. But it’s a mixed bag – all three shows are very different. They look very different.

“It definitely has the Scandi noir elements in there but they’re pushed into a different angle. It will be more playful, it has more of a sense of humour. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. It also takes an interesting look at Reykjavík. We’re changing the scenery a little bit in the series.”

The director, who is currently filming episodes for the second season of fellow Icelandic drama Trapped, says Stella’s character influenced the way he shot the series. “Stella’s bisexual, she’s very opinionated and she’s constantly tricking people; she can put on a mask,” he explains. “That was something I was definitely trying to play with. Because Stella has so many faces, Heida maintained that she should not change her costume a lot and she should look the same, as that helps us identify with her because she’s always pretending.”

The casting process was a drawn-out affair as the creative team sought to find the perfect actor to fill the role, eventually securing Reed, who is back in period costume to shoot season four of BBC period drama Poldark.

“Heida had something we’d seen in the character in the books,” Axelsson says. “She’s really carrying the series – she’s in almost every scene. Hiring a young actor who doesn’t have much experience could have been suicide for us, but Heida coming off three seasons of Poldark and having that experience was a huge bonus.”

“Stella is the series,” says Sagafilm Nordic CEO Kjartan Thor Thordarson. “It was a very important piece of the puzzle to get Stella right. We did test a lot of actresses – we wanted to see who would catch Stella and her tone, looks and demeanour. She’s a very tough woman but she also has her vulnerable sides. Heida basically nailed her.”

Reed pictured on set during a break in filming

With more than 90 speaking roles, rehearsal time was at a premium, with Axelsson admitting the 48-day shoot was shorter than he would have liked. This meant the director, working with a script that contained flashbacks and one-line scenes, had to prioritise which would be afforded the most time.

Production was complicated further by the lack of darkness in Iceland during the late-spring and summer months when filming took place. “It’s a noir so it has to have a lot of darkness, but we started shooting in early April, which meant we had a month to shoot night scenes,” Axelsson says.

“In mid-May, we’re almost into 24-hour daylight, so we had to do all the night scenes first. We started really front-heavy with that. It was a night shoot throughout April and the days gradually got longer. In May, we might still have had a night scene to do, so our schedule would be midday to midnight and we’d try to get this one night scene at the end that we’d missed.

“That was difficult, and in grading now we’re trying to match stuff we shot in June to what we got in April when it was snowing. We were really unlucky with the weather. It was a really tough shoot, actually.”

For Sagafilm, the project was born out of a desire to create an Icelandic series that could be marketed around the world. Stella Blómkvist fitted the bill, as the novels are already known across Europe and would draw the kind of production partners – and budget – needed to turn the property into a global franchise. The decision to make the series available in three 90-minute episodes or six 45-minute versions was also taken to maximise international appeal.

At €3m (US$3.6m), the show’s budget is double the standard cost of an Icelandic drama, but this was “part of the plan to up the game and we can see it in the series,” says Thordarson. “There’s a lot of different things we haven’t seen before from smaller-budget series. We tried to make it look like a €10m series.

“It’s definitely not like other things in Scandinavia. I just think we’re competing with ourselves, trying to do better every time. We don’t really want to follow what others are doing; we want to be our own voice – that’s what we’re trying to do and I think we did that with [crime drama] Case, our last series. That was unique in the market. In many ways, we played with the filmmaking aspect a little bit there and we are continuing to do that with Stella. It’s very unlike Case. So I think that will continue.”

Another appeal of making Stella Blómkvist was the potential to create a long-running franchise. Thordarson adds: “We have at least eight books and they’re still being published, so who knows how many there will be in the end. We have already started looking into what’s next in the Stella saga.”

Heida Reed with Aidan Turner in Poldark (left) and as Stella Blómkvist

Heida’s Stella performance
As Elizabeth Warleggan in BBC period drama Poldark, Heida Reed is more used to being part of a large ensemble cast than taking the lead. So when she won the title role in Stella Blómkvist, there was only one person she turned to – Ross Poldark himself.

“I actually texted Aidan Turner saying, ‘How did you do it?’” she reveals. “Suddenly I realised what it felt like to be in his position and I remember asking him, ‘Were you shitting yourself in the beginning at the first read-through and on the first day of filming?’ He just told me not to worry and had some nice, encouraging things to say. It was interesting to feel what it would be like in his shoes a little bit, and it was nice to be able to talk to someone who understood where I was coming from.”

Having moved to the UK to embark on an acting career, Iceland-born Reed’s Stella Blómkvist part marks her first leading role in a homegrown series, after previously appearing in 2014 miniseries Hraunið (The Lava Field).

“It’s an old-school noir but in a modern setting,” she says of her new show. “Stella’s a femme fatale and detective in one, and all the villains are grotesque and over the top. It’s fun to step out of realism sometimes. All the Scandi noir stuff is as raw as you can get. We did that [in Iceland] with Case and Trapped, so it’s actually refreshing to do something a bit more fantasy-like.”

Adding to the appeal was the chance to play a role far removed from that of Poldark’s Elizabeth. “It’s always really nice and fortunate when you don’t get pigeon-holed into one thing and you get to explore how far you can take a different type of character,” she says, describing Stella and Elizabeth as extremes of her own personality. “I didn’t think I’d get it, because she’s blonde in the books – she talks about using her blonde hair as her weapon. Elizabeth was supposed to be blonde as well, so I’m always going up for blonde characters and thinking I’m not going to get them. I’m fighting the good fight [for brunettes].”

In addition to late-night shoots and unpredictable weather, another key challenge the actor faced was reacquainting herself with the Icelandic language. “I was told I had to be less clear,” she says. “Maybe because I’ve been doing Poldark for so long, I was being so careful with how I was pronouncing things because I don’t speak that much Icelandic except to my family. I got direction to be less clear and maybe more sloppy because that’s more natural, and Stella is not someone who necessarily enunciates every word. She’s someone who blurts stuff out. The longer I was there, the easier it became.”

Reed now has her sights set on a comedy role, having starred in a period drama and a heavily stylised series. But with the success of Poldark and the potential to play Stella Blómkvist for many more seasons, she could soon have two huge returning hits on
her hands.

tagged in: , , , , , , , ,

On the Case: Baldvin Z on his new Icelandic drama

Icelandic director Baldvin Z tells Michael Pickard how he used music to piece together new crime drama Case and reveals how the script tempted him to venture into TV.

When it comes to making television drama, music is usually one of the final elements brought to the process, deep into post-production.

But for new Icelandic crime drama Case, it was used to set the atmosphere for the series and help the cast understand the characters they were playing.

The idea came from the show’s director Baldvin Z (aka Baldvin Zophoníasson), who had previously used the technique on the set of his film Life in a Fishbowl.

Baldvin Z on set shooting Case
Baldvin Z on set shooting Case

“We started working with the music way before shooting,” he tells DQ. “I presented the idea and how I wanted to approach the project, and I started to make some music that I used to get people on board with the atmosphere and to show them the kind of TV show we were going to make. It helps a lot.

“In the shooting and rehearsals, sometimes I would put the music on to help the actors imagine where they were and what would be playing on the show at that moment. I use music a lot. I’m hands-on all the way. After we have shot something, I’m there all the way to the end. But I allow everybody to bring their heart into it. I want everybody to participate and put everything into it.”

A spin-off from legal series Réttur (The Court), Case opens with the apparent suicide of a promising young ballerina, and follows the battle between her biological parents and her foster parents to uncover the truth behind her death – with everything seen through the eyes of the lawyers involved.

The nine-part drama, produced by Sagafilm and helmed entirely by Z, is due to premiere in mid-October on Iceland’s Channel 2.

With his background in feature films, the director had never considered a television crime drama – until he read Case’s script. “This is something I couldn’t imagine myself doing two years ago,” he says. “I don’t really watch much crime drama. I’d always told myself I wouldn’t do a TV series like this, and now I’ve directed Case.

“I received scripts for three episodes about two years ago. I read them and I was really drawn to the show. It’s about teenagers and a situation that’s going on in Iceland’s underworld. I also saw it as a crime story but with a big drama in it. That was something that appealed to me – it was more about the drama than the crime. It’s not a typical crime drama – it’s not a ‘whodunnit.’ It’s about the ‘why,’ so it has a lot of unusual twists and it takes you to different places compared with other crime shows.

Case focuses on the death of a ballerina, following the fallout through the eyes of lawyers
Case focuses on the death of a ballerina, following the fallout through the eyes of lawyers

The slow-paced nature of the series has led to comparisons to fellow Scandinavian series Forbrydelsen (The Killing), and Z says Case sits comfortably alongside other Nordic noir shows.

“It’s much more about the characters than the actual events,” he explains. “It starts with this girl who is found hanged but the case is much bigger than that, and that’s what’s interesting. You get to follow these characters and when we reveal the ‘monster’ in the middle of the series, it takes you on a new adventure that is really exciting. I’m looking forward to seeing reactions to that.”

On set, Z says he’s keen to work with the actors as much as possible to make the story as realistic as he can: “I really work a lot with the actors and try to take them to the next level, and I want them to take me to the next level with them. I wanted to have believable characters and make it as realistic as possible. I didn’t want to drive a scene to the edge because it had to be really exciting – I’m always trying to find the truth in everything. And if I succeed in that, the rest comes with it. It’s exciting because the suspense comes naturally. You don’t want to force it into the scenes.

“It’s been really interesting to go into this drama. I have approached it like I do for everything – it’s a drama with storytelling and characters. I’m not making a crime series, I’m making a drama with crime in it and that takes it to another level.”

Z notes that the time and space Scandinavian dramas allow for character development contrasts with faster-paced series, particularly those produced in the US. “The difference compared with US shows is you have this opportunity to realise that all the characters are made of flesh and bone and you breathe with them. You see them making decisions. You see something more than in American shows, where everything’s so pacy and everyone’s so witty and clever.

The nine-part drama begins this month
The nine-part drama begins this month

“The characters in Case are broken. They always make the wrong decision – they’re so imperfect and that is what makes it interesting. The cops are not cool, they are just people. They’re getting into situations they’ve never been in before and they don’t know what to do. Iceland doesn’t have the biggest underworld scene so I have to make it realistic for Icelandic people, and I think it will be interesting for foreigners to see it.”

Z says the first season’s conclusion leaves room for a second run and that he is now keen to work more in television. He has also directed three episodes of Trapped, another Icelandic drama from director Baltasar Kormákur and produced by RVK Studios and Dynamic Television. The Weinstein Company has picked up US rights to the show, which will air domestically on RUV and centres on a troubled cop investigating a murder when his small town is hit by a blizzard.

The BBC, ZDF and France Televisions have also picked up the series.

“It’s a very young industry in Iceland, we’re in the teenage phase,” says Z. “For the first time we’re really emerging onto the scene and we have quality stuff – equal to other content being produced in Scandinavia and Europe.

“We’ve been bringing a lot of foreign projects to Iceland and we’ve been learning from them. Our directors are getting better and better and there are so many young people doing incredible things. There’s something about our landscapes, animals and behaviour that appeals to foreigners but we are increasingly telling our own stories.

“I hope we will not quit doing our Icelandic content but we have to blend in with the universal and contemporary programming. We’re going to get bigger and bigger over the next few years. We have a lot to stay.”

tagged in: , , , , ,

The Saga continues: DQ talks to Sagafilm Nordic CEO Kjartan Thor Thordarson

Kjartan Thor Thordarson, CEO of Sagafilm Nordic, tells Michael Pickard how the decision to expand Sagafilm’s business is helping Icelandic drama make its mark on the television industry.

In an increasingly competitive market where coproductions are no longer an exception to the rule, one production company is hoping to reap the rewards of its European expansion.

Kjartan Thor Thordarson: Appetite for Scandinavian drama 'still growing'
Kjartan Thor Thordarson: Appetite for Scandinavian drama ‘still growing’

Iceland’s Sagafilm made the decision in February this year to open a new office in Sweden, to capitalise on the close links between Scandinavian broadcasters and with ambitions to impose itself further in Europe and beyond.

Announcing the move, Sagafilm Nordic CEO Kjartan Thor Thordarson said the decision to establish a new base in the centre of Stockholm was, in part, due to Icelandic broadcasters’ inability to meet the rising costs for series: “Our focus remains TV drama, but chances to grow domestically have been hampered by the national stations’ ability to pay the full production cost for local series. At the same time, there is a huge appetite from foreign broadcasters for original scripted drama and remake opportunities.

“Our goal is to up the game by accessing different markets from Stockholm where we will develop more ambitious projects with international partners and handle our remakes around the world.”

Now, just a few months on, Thordarson says Sagafilm’s new international strategy is already beginning to pay off, with the company’s flagship new drama Case (main image) being prepared to hit screens later this year.

He tells DQ: “It has changed everything. I’m closer to the Scandinavian buyers, which is very important if we’re to expand. I have seen quite a difference – a lot of people come to visit Stockholm to meet producers and channels, which you don’t see in Iceland. All the US channels seem to be looking at Scandinavia in a big way, and I profit from that. It makes sense being close to the market. It has done dramatic things for us.

“We hit it at the right time. The appetite for Scandinavian content is not losing ground – it’s still growing. What we’re seeing this year is there are so many more channels interested in buying this type of content and also getting in earlier, which is great for producers.”

Thordarson identifies a trend of European broadcasters moving away from the US content that has readily filled primetime slots in recent years and towards dramas from other countries that are proving to be ratings hits among domestic viewers. And it’s a trend of which many European territories are taking advantage.

Upcoming drama Case, which Kjartan says will 'change everything' for Sagafilm
Upcoming drama Case, which Kjartan says will ‘change everything’ for Sagafilm

“The US content seems to be giving way in Europe, so more slots are opening up for other things,” explains Thordarson. “When that happens, people look towards the successful markets, so both UK and Scandinavian content is benefiting, as are French shows. Italy has come in with Gomorrah and 1992. Germany is also getting more international recognition, so I think Europe is getting stronger.”

But it is in Scandinavia where Thordarson has seen first-hand the evolution of many networks’ attitudes towards homegrown drama, with an increasing number of nets throwing themselves into the arena.

“We have seen dramatic changes in Scandinavia,” he says. “All of a sudden in Sweden there are channels like Kanal 5, TV3 and HBO Nordic commissioning drama, which is new. Most of the people here in Sweden have previously said there were only two channels commissioning drama, and now there are five. The same thing is happening in other Scandinavian countries, including Iceland. We are seeing TV2 in Denmark adding more slots for local drama. The US content is giving way there, for example. I see this trend growing and the demand for unique content that’s not available everywhere is the reason for this. Channels are looking for more exclusive content.”

Sagafilm’s slate includes political drama The Minister for Iceland’s RUV, a fourth season of The Press (aka Pressa) for Channel 2 and an adaptation of a novel by author Stella Blómkvist.

But the series Thordarson says will be a game-changer for the firm is a new nine-part drama called Case, a thriller spin-off from its legal series Réttur (The Court).

Case opens with the apparent suicide of a promising young ballerina, and follows the battle between her biological parents and her foster parents to uncover the truth behind her death – all seen through the eyes of the lawyers involved. It is due to premiere in mid-October on Iceland’s Channel 2.

“The themes in the series are very much to do with what’s going on with social media – the problems of young people being too open online and the fact young girls are being manipulated to do things they’re not supposed to do. We expose a lot of dirt and filth along the way, not necessarily all connected to the death of this girl.

“We believe this series will change everything for us. If you take the UK, we saw BBC Four starting to air content they believed was for niche audiences, like Wallander, The Killing and our series The Night Shift. But it turned out a lot of British people want to watch international series not spoken in English. We’re like that everywhere, we just want good content – it doesn’t matter what language is spoken – and that benefits smaller markets. This year and next year you will see Icelandic, Finnish and Eastern European series doing very well internationally.”

Case follows the aftermath of a ballerina's suicide
Case follows the aftermath of a ballerina’s suicide

A consequence of, or perhaps the motivation for, greater coproduction is the increasing budgets television dramas now demand, and Thordarson says Sagafilm is already adapting its own financing model.

“We used to look at Iceland as our primary market, but now we look at Europe as our primary market,” he says. “We’re financing our series completely differently now. In the past we financed 90% in Iceland and perhaps brought one Scandinavian channel on board. Now we’re looking at projects where we’re financing half out of Iceland and the rest internationally. It’s a completely different way of approaching things.

“The projects have changed as well; they’ve become more international. We look for stories we know will work in more than one country. We are even looking to commission things that are set in Iceland, but are not commissioned for Icelandic channels. Maybe we will sell it to an Icelandic channel. So we’re definitely doing things differently and looking for things that are global and fit into this coproduction model with characters from more than one country.”

Sagafilm’s expansion into Sweden, coupled with the growing appetite for Icelandic drama – BBC Four previously acquired Trapped – means it is now well placed to make its case for being a major player in the international market.

tagged in: , , , , , ,