Director Peter Grönlund tells DQ about filming “dark fairytale” Björnstad (Beartown), a Swedish drama about a small-town hockey team and a brutal crime that tears the community apart.
Filmmaker Peter Grönlund, the director of Swedish drama Björnstad (Beartown), admits he’s not the first person he would have suggested to bring this story based on the novel by Fredrik Backman to the screen. Fortunately, however, the producers were looking for someone with a “specific voice” like his.
“It was obvious the producers wanted someone with a voice,” he tells DQ. “They looked for an interesting marriage and thought, ‘What happens if we put this guy with this material?’ I realised they were looking for specific voice and tone and that I would be able to address this in my own way.
“I’m very naturalistic in my movies. In Sweden, I’m known for realism and sociopolitical stories that take on hard subjects with real people. I always cast a lot of non-actors and mix them up with trained actors. That creates a sense of truthfulness and authenticity.”
Drawn in by the “intriguing, emotional story,” Grönlund (Drifters, Goliath) took up the challenge of helming this five-part series, which launched on HBO across Europe earlier this month. The show is set in the fictional location of Beartown, found deep in northern Sweden. The inhabitants of this close-knit town are putting their dreams on the shoulders of the junior ice hockey team, which is making a play for the national semi-finals. But this heavy burden becomes the catalyst for a violent act that will leave a young girl traumatised and a town in turmoil as accusations travel through Beartown, leaving no resident unaffected.
“Beartown is a saga. It’s like a fairytale with dark elements, and they were interested in the mixture of me coming on board [together with Backman’s source material], and I appreciated that. It was very attractive to me,” Grönlund says. “I’ve always worked with themes like masculinity, the ugly side of winner culture and patriarchal structures. That was what drew me to the project.”
There is only the hint of a crime taking place in the snow-covered forest that surrounds the town as the series opens when a new coach arrives to lead the Beartown hockey team. But with the dismal showing of the side hurting the town’s standing and reputation, he looks to the junior team to lift community spirits.
Slowly, the crime at the centre of the story is revealed. But Grönlund says the show, written by Anders Weidemann (30 Degrees in February), Antonia Pyk and Linn Gottfridsson, is not a whodunnit. “I wanted to be clear that there was a crime and [to look at] the interesting questions that raises in the community and the way these people navigate when they put all their trust into this hockey team. These guys are carrying the hopes of the town on their shoulders while realising that, ‘Shit, this might be true. This might have happened.’
“How does it affect them and what does it mean for the town and its future plans? Those issues are fundamental but we are also very clear there was a crime. We didn’t want to be too vague about that part.”
The cast is led by Ulf Stenberg, Aliette Opheim, Tobias Zilliacus, Miriam Ingrid and Oliver Dufaker, with the director employing his aforementioned practice of mixing experienced actors with people who were complete novices on screen but could relate to the show’s environment and its culture.
“Something beautiful happens sometimes when you take non-professional actors who come with their experiences and you mix them with professional actors,” he explains. “When it works, it really brings out the most fantastic atmosphere on set where we go to places we didn’t expect to go. They both learn from each other and that’s an amazing process. They nature each other and lean on each other.”
With ice hockey being central to the show, Grönlund also had to cast actors who were handy with a puck, while US sports choreographer Aimee McDaniel was on hand to set up the fast-paced match scenes.
“Big up to the hockey players. They knew their choreography so well,” the director says. “They were able to work through their plays over and over again, always with the same choreography, while making it look real.
“It was so great having them on the ice, but it’s also hard filming them because they are moving. We always used three cameras while we were on the ice and placed them at different angles, and we worked through all the plays we choreographed, which we did a lot of times. It’s hard – even for these guys, they get really tired. You put on those tight skates and you expect to perform for eight hours, but that’s impossible. They have to take breaks, of course. It’s a huge marathon.”
Produced by Filmlance for HBO Europe, which also distributes the series, Beartown began production early in 2019 in the snowy and freezing cold north of Sweden on location in Gallivare, Overtornea, Haparanda, Kalix, Malmberget and Kiruna. With the production battling temperatures as low as -35°C and snow of up to 1.5 metres deep in some places, Grönlund says one of his biggest tasks was keeping up the spirits of cast and crew as they ploughed through the 72-day filming schedule.
“It was really harsh conditions, and the cameras just stopped working,” he recalls. “We could be stuck for hours sometimes just waiting for a camera or something to replace some part of the camera that went to hell. That was really hard. But still, it’s always the same with directing. You lose a lot of energy and you lose faith, but then something happens that gets you going again, like a nice performance or a shot we’re filming, and the energy comes back into you.
“I love the frozen world that we portrayed in the first few weeks [of the shoot]. It’s so important for the drama, so it was totally worth it. We used hard rigs. It wasn’t just a little camera. There were cranes and dollies and all this big equipment, and we had to create roads or paths through the snow without destroying the shots. It was crazy.”
Earlier this year, Grönlund faced another battle when Covid-19 shut down much of the industry, meaning post-production work had to be done remotely. Beartown was just coming out of the editing room when the pandemic hit, and the director admits cutting the episodes via Zoom would have been “horrible.”
After that, “I was using my home office to do all the ADR [automated dialogue replacement],” he says. “I thought it would be a catastrophe but it really worked, so we were lucky. I met my composer a couple of times; he lives up north and I went up there a couple of times. Other than that, I was working from the office during the rest of the post-production.”
With the series now airing across Europe, Grönlund believes Beartown is an emotional story that will grab viewers and pull them into the show’s universe. “You haven’t seen this too much,” he says. “There’s a certain tone to it, a mysterious world that you’re drawn into and, of course, it raises a lot of interesting thematic questions. Hopefully it creates discussions. It’s interesting as a great story but also has these political layers.
“The hockey is just an extract of what happens in society and is a great illustration of what happens in a masculine society, with macho norms and patriarchal structures. But it’s not a show about hockey; it’s about a community.”