The Young one
DQ heads to Lithuania to meet the cast and crew behind Netflix’s Young Wallander, which introduces the police officer who will become the iconic Swedish detective created by Henning Mankell.
On the streets of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, it’s a bitterly cold evening as pedestrians walk around – and sometimes through – the television crew filling up the pavement beside a news kiosk.
On one side is the camera team, resetting for another take. Nearby is a small tent that houses monitors relaying the footage. In the middle are actors Adam Pålsson and Ellise Chappell, wrapped up against the wind until preparations are completed to shoot the penultimate scene of six-part crime drama Young Wallander.
Based on the Kurt Wallander novels by Henning Mankell that have led to both Swedish and British adaptations, this Netflix series is a modern reimagining of the iconic detective as he faces his first major case. When he is unable to save a teenager from a gruesome attack, Wallander must learn to cope with his guilt in order to solve the crime while navigating the increasingly violent environment of present-day Sweden.
Swedish actor Pålsson (Before We Die, Moscow Noir) takes the lead role in a series populated by a largely British cast, with British heads of department and a Lithuanian crew. The series is produced by Yellow Bird UK, the London-based outpost of the Swedish company behind the original Wallander films that starred Krister Henriksson and the film adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy.
Vilnius is doubling for Malmö, the Swedish city where Wallander lives on the Rosengård estate as a beat cop for the local police force until he is promoted to detective to help solve a murder investigation. On set in November last year, two weeks away from the end of shooting, Pålsson and Chappell stand together beside a Pressbyrån news kiosk before heading down a path bordered by tower blocks, signposted ‘Rosengård Centrum.’
Pre-production began at the end of 2018, meaning it was a quick turnaround to get the show into production, and filming wrapped just a year later. For Yellow Bird UK, the project has provided perfect symmetry. Yellow Bird Sweden was established in 2003 with Wallander, the Henriksson-starring film series that preceded the British films, which starred Kenneth Branagh. And when the company was looking to expand three years ago, creative director Berna Levin oversaw the opening of Yellow Bird UK in London with plans to launch with a new Wallander project.
“We had talked with Henning about a prequel and he was really interested in that,” Levin tells DQ. “We had started developing that, but then he was sick and we waited. Sadly he passed away [in 2015] so when we started Yellow Bird UK, I felt it was not going to happen. But never say never.”
Enter Netflix, which Levin says was “very respective but very persistent” in making its admiration of the character known. When Yellow Bird UK launched, the conversation progressed rapidly until the series was commissioned.
Mankell’s Wallander novels don’t just tell a crime story, however, but also talk about particular political and social issues. By setting Young Wallander in the present, Levin says she wanted to tap into current issues in Sweden – such as immigration, trafficking and gang violence – that also reflected the challenges facing the country at the time Mankell first wrote his novels.
“Because of the character’s legacy and all the films, it’s been a constant puzzle,” Levin says. “We had to create something that feels new and fresh, but there’s a constant nod to what has happened before. When you meet Wallander in the books, he’s already a detective, an alcoholic, divorced and very depressed. You can’t start him off like that in his youth, but you need to show the audience that all of that is already here. It’s a big challenge.
“For the people who have never seen Wallander, this is about a cop who’s going to become a detective and about the personal journey. This is where we start, and they will see what happens to get him to where he needs to be – everything that happens that will form him as a detective and as a person.”
Writer Ben Harris (Devils, Dark Heart) was developing another project with Yellow Bird UK when he was offered the chance to create Young Wallander. He went straight to Malmö for a research trip, aware a date had already been set to begin shooting.
“I wanted to take it away from what everyone knows about Wallander, while still retaining the core tentpoles of the brand,” he says. “People who love all the versions will see what we’ve done. It feels very different but it’s still the same, so we weren’t betraying any of the canon. One of the main things was to put it in a city, a very urban environment, claustrophobic, edgy and intense, rather than wide open spaces.
“When I started to research Malmö, mad things are happening there. In the two weeks after I said yes, there were three explosions there. There’s a really interesting immigration situation going on there. If you’re going to do a story about this place, it has to have immigration as a central theme and the gang problem it’s created, but it’s more complex than that. The immigration problem is used by more powerful entities for their own ends. I got offered it and as soon as I started researching it, I thought it was very fertile territory.”
The serialised story takes very little from Mankell’s books, save for the character traits that Wallander fans will find familiar. “He’s quite a socially conscious guy and that’s his superpower, but also his greatest weakness. He cares too much about the cases,” Harris explains. “Then there’s how he drinks too much. What I’m trying to do is set the building blocks of how he became the guy he’s going to become, while telling the story in a way that’s completely non-derivative.”
With time to compete the scripts at a premium, Harris ran a writers room in three blocks, one per two episodes, and brought in Anoo Bhagavan, Jessica Ruston and Ben Schiffer to pen the middle episodes. The difficult part, he says, was developing the series while writing it: “I was finding the voice for the show and writing it the same time, which is a tricky beast. I am a big writers room guy, but for most of this show I was in my office writing it myself with steam coming out of my ears.”
Block two director Jens Jonsson (Blinded), who helmed the final three episodes, was familiar with Wallander and also with Mankell, having met the writer at a dinner. Joining Young Wallander, he was interested in how societal issues Mankell wrote about 20 years ago have resurfaced.
“The first episode is quite big because it’s set in Malmö during a riot. These are very up-to-date situations, as there were bombs in Malmö as we were shooting this. These things are going on for real. I thought it was exciting that it was set in the present day and Rosengård was a big part of the story.”
Following lead director Ole Endresen (Bulletproof), he continued the show’s singular focus on Wallander, shooting from the protagonist’s perspective. “It’s so focused around Kurt Wallander; it’s a brave choice,” he says. “There are no parallel stories. What Kurt knows is also what the audience knows about the case. It demands a lot from the storytelling so you’re engaged both in the case and in his private life as a young cop.
“I was very happy to find there was a love story in episode four with Kurt and Mona. These are my favourite scenes, when people are in love. There are also some action scenes, which are also fun to do, and we had a grandiose climax, but I personally love to do these more intimate, character-driven scenes.”
Behind the camera, DOP Gaute Gunnari (Thin Ice) took a naturalistic approach to the series. Notably, Pålsson’s Wallander is always shot ‘clean’ – clearly in shot, unblocked and in focus – while other actors are very often ‘dirty,’ where they might be partially covered or out of focus.
“It’s very simple but that will enforce the feeling of just being with him all the time,” Gunnari says. “We were also trying to portray him in different ways across the six episodes. Otherwise the audience might get tired of his pretty face.
“Lithuania is a great country to shoot in and the crew is excellent. But some of it is challenging. We’ve had a lot of night scenes.”
Production designer Malin Lindholm (Deep Water) found Vilnius to be a convincing replica of Malmö, but also wanted to ensure the production made the most of the “gritty” Lithuanian capital.
“We really pushed on this young Wallander idea. We looked at all sorts of references like HBO’s Euphoria, which is very young, very cool,” she says. “There are definitely elements we took inspiration from, but we had to stay with the nature of the series. You can’t turn Young Wallander into an American high-school teen series.”
The show is filmed entirely on location, save for a police station set that was constructed. Around two days were shot in Malmö, with the rest filmed in Vilnius. But it was the search for a venue that could double as a nightclub called The Cube that threw up one of the most interesting locations.
“We were looking at nightclubs and bars here and it was difficult to find something with an edge,” Lindholm says. “At the same time, we needed a custody corridor so we were looking at prisons. A location manager showed me pictures of an old Russian prison. He was thinking of the custody corridor but I looked at the pictures and said, ‘This is the club.’ It just looks spectacular. We turned that into a hardcore nightclub and brought in 380 extras. That was fun because it was really playful and we could create anything we wanted.”
A stone’s throw from where Pålsson and Chappell are filming, a car park has been transformed into the unit base with tents and trailers. In one trailer lined with clothes rails is costume designer Howard Burden, who has worked alongside assistant costume designer Linda Haysman to source and fit clothes for every cast member and extra.
Wallander is initially seen in a police uniform, before he dons plain clothes once he’s promoted to detective. “He has a very practical, subtle look, nothing that stands out or is fashionable,” Burden says. “He’s working every day, he’s an ordinary guy in his 20s. He has lots of T-shirts and muted colours. They’re the kind of clothes you disappear in – greys, navy, khaki greens and black.
“For Mona, we wanted to make her grungy with pops of colour. The young actors who play kids on the estate also helped with ideas for their costumes. Every single member of the cast has just been lovely. The crew are nice. That’s made it a real pleasure.”
Meanwhile, in another trailer where one wall is covered in mirrors, hair and make-up designer Renata Gilbert stands beside a pin board displaying pictures of Wallander’s various injuries and bruises, as well as a breakdown of injuries other characters suffer in the series.
“It’s about keeping it real,” she says of working on the contemporary drama. “It’s easy as a make-up artist to complicate matters and make things look too perfect. You can focus on tiny details and then sometimes lose the reality behind it. It’s not fantastical or stylised; it’s real life. I’m just trying to keep each character believable.”
Pålsson is a busy man on set, as Wallander is involved in every scene. But the actor is extremely humble, describing the role as a “great opportunity” that he feels “privileged” to have received. It’s as if he was made for the role, with several personal links to the character: his father’s name is Kurt and his mother’s family lived in Ystad in the south of Sweden, where the character later resides, meaning he’s in familiar territory with the show’s environmental and emotional landscape. Pålsson also says he hasn’t seen the original series, admitting he would rather read Mankell’s novels, which means imitating Henriksson or Branagh was never an option.
“He’s a sensitive guy; he’s soulful. He has a great big emotional capacity, maybe too big for being a cop,” Pålsson says, noting Wallander’s habit of becoming personally involved in his cases. “I haven’t had a chance to read all the books yet but, so far, in every Wallander novel, he considers quitting and working in something else because he’s not cut out for being a cop. Maybe that’s what makes him a good cop.”
Pålsson honed his English working on Armando Iannucci’s HBO comedy series Avenue 5 in London last summer and prepared for Young Wallander with a little rehearsal, but says he has been afforded time on his own to find the character for himself.
“For me as an actor, the work is to adapt to the script,” he says. “It’s a negotiation all the time. I need to find platforms or tune into the frequency where my thoughts and my imagination of this story and this character meets the director’s and the script and everyone finds a way to connect. Then suddenly the director says, ‘There he is.’
“I started acting when I was 13 and I’m 32 now, so I’ve been doing this a while. This is my life. I love it. I’m living my dream. I don’t feel a great responsibility, I feel a great pleasure. I’m just enjoying it.”
Meanwhile, Pålsson’s character’s potential romance with Mona gets off to an inauspicious start. Episode one sees Kurt among the police officers escorting anti-immigration marchers through the streets of Malmö when a young woman in the crowd calls him a “fascist pig.” As we soon learn, this is Mona – and as Wallander aficionados will know, she later marries him, only for them to divorce in the future.
“Joining the prequel means you know what happens in the end, so it’s really interesting to have that in mind,” says Ellise Chappell (Poldark), who plays Mona. “The first impression you get of her is someone quite forthright with her opinions. She’s very strong-minded, she’s not afraid to say what she thinks. She’s passionate and can come across maybe quite hard. But as we get to know her through the series, she’s actually got a very big heart.”
Charles Mnene plays Bash, a gang leader on the Rosengård estate who forms a unique relationship with Kurt once he discovers there is a police officer living close by. Originally from East Africa, Bash has found a new home in Sweden and, through the attack on the estate, he forms a bond with Wallander.
“He’s a very interesting character,” says Mnene (The State). “He’s got a good heart but gets caught up in things that definitely challenge his moral compass. He’s found a place that’s home and he’s managed to integrate himself very well, but he could lose everything in a blink of an eye and he’s just trying to hold it all together.”
Similarly, Ibra’s life revolves around Rosengård but his footballing talent means he has been offered the chance of a better life for him and his mum, who came to Sweden before her son was born. But as one of Bash’s proteges, Ibra – who takes his nickname from Swedish football star Zlatan Ibrahimovic – is suddenly pulled into Wallander’s murder investigation.
“Kurt knows Ibra and knows he’s a kid who might get out of the estate, but very quickly he gets pulled into the case,” explains Jordan Adene, who plays the character. “Ibra’s this young boy coming from the neglected areas, surrounded by gang violence and drug-dealing. He’s basically seen in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people.”
Adene (Wanderlust, Heirs of the Night) says he loves the show’s take on the titular detective. “The Kurt Wallander we all know today is this experienced policeman with years of training, but this is his younger years. This is his journey to becoming that,” he says. “It’s all about the journey. This Kurt doesn’t have all that experience and training. That’s what makes the show so authentic and will give the audience a real insight into the character’s journey to becoming this iconic detective.”
While the original Wallander films paved the way for Nordic noir to become popular around the world, Young Wallander, which debuts tomorrow, is set to bring the character full circle.
“If you’re a fan of Wallander, it’s a great show to watch to see how it all started and how different but the same he was at the beginning,” Levin says. “If you have no idea who Wallander is, you can see a police officer becoming a detective at great personal cost and what it means to believe in something so much that you’re willing to make sacrifices. You fall in love with Kurt Wallander. Then you’ll want to see what comes next.”
tagged in: Adam Pålsson, Ben Harris, Berna Levin, Charles Mnene, Ellise Chappell, Gaute Gunnari, Howard Burden, Jens Jonsson, Jordan Adene, Linda Haysman, Malin Lindholm, Netflix, Renata Gilbert, Yellow Bird UK, Young Wallander