Tracing Descendants

Tracing Descendants

January 18, 2024


Icelandic series Descendants marks the showrunning debut of actor, writer and director Tinna Hrafnsdóttir. She tells DQ about the dysfunctional family drama and why she wants to create connections with the audience.

Since her screen debut in 2007, Tinna Hrafnsdóttir has become a familiar face on Icelandic television thanks to roles in Hamarinn (The Cliff), The Valhalla Murders and Ráðherrann (The Minister). But following the release of her first short film, Helga, in 2016, her acting career has dovetailed with her ambitions as a writer and director.

Now, with her latest project, Descendants, Hrafnsdóttir has made her showrunning debut – a drama she wrote, directed and also starred in.

The character-driven series, which is set against the backdrop of the Icelandic tourism industry, tells the story of a dysfunctional Icelandic family through themes such as greed, sibling rivalry, loyalty and responsibility.

Tinna Hrafnsdóttir

When three middle-aged siblings inherit their parents’ successful whale-watching company and beautiful summer house, tensions rise between them. Eldest sister Arndís (Hrafnsdóttir), younger sister Rúna (Þuríður Blær Jóhannesdóttir) and their brother Elvar (Vignir Rafn Valþórsson) all have difficult relations with their charismatic mother, highly respected novelist Lóa (Hanna María Karlsdóttir). When their father passes away, each sibling has their own motivation to gain as much as possible from the inheritance, but their dominating mother gets in the way.

Produced by Polarama, Hrafnsdóttir’s Freyja Filmworks and Projects Production in coproduction with Lunanime, the series debuted on local streamer Síminn last November. Red Arrow Studios International is handling distribution of the show, for which Hrafnsdóttir has been nominated for the Nordisk Film & TV Fond Prize 2024 for best Nordic drama series screenwriting.

Here, Hrafnsdóttir speaks to DQ about her varied career, the origins of Descendants and her ambitions to tell stories and create characters in whom viewers can recognise themselves.

How has your writing career emerged alongside your acting roles?
I studied literature at the University of Iceland for nearly three years before gaining admission to the acting programme at the Iceland University of the Arts in 1998, which definitely contributed to the development of my writing skills.

While my focus after graduation in 2002 remained on acting for many years, in 2013 I discovered an exciting scriptwriting programme at the university, led by two successful Icelandic writers/directors. Participating in that programme marked a turning point; I realised my passion for storytelling and found the film industry most intriguing. My first script was for my first short film Helga, which premiered in 2016 and got selected to various film festivals worldwide. Since then, I have written my first feature, Quake (2021), and now Descendants with my co-writers.

What is your approach to writing and what kinds of stories do you like to tell?
I am drawn to stories that hold significance, serve as mirrors and reflect aspects of my own identity and experiences. For that reason, I aim to tell stories that are able to create connection, a sense of relatability, through shared emotions, challenges and triumphs that echo the viewers’ own personal journeys. These are the stories that not only entertain but also enrich understanding and evoke empathy, which the world needs so much more of.

At the development stage, my projects have been selected for several scriptwriting labs and programmes around the world, which have been extremely helpful, like Midpoint, Script Pool at Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, TIFF Filmmakers lab and more.

Descendants focuses on three siblings who inherit their parents’ whale-watching company

How would you describe the story of Descendants?
The story is first and foremost character driven, which I feel has a great value these days in the TV industry. Strong characters, shaped from the oldest form of establishment – the family – can keep audiences curious about to what extent they mirror themselves; how their deeds and doings, mistakes and fears can be related to and also keep them curious about ‘what he or she will do next?’ instead of ‘what will happen next?’

That approach was so neatly done in Succession, where the story was much more driven by the actions and reactions of the characters than the plot itself. Therefore, in Descendants, the first four episodes focus on the characters. I found it very important to give each of them a strong voice in order to strengthen our approach of a character-driven story with layers that are revealed bit by bit . The last two episodes revolve around all of them and how everything develops after the climax, when the house burns down.

What are the origins of the project?
It’s slightly based on my own experience. Many years ago, the summer house my grandparents built burned down, but the story and the characters of Descendants are pure fiction. Both the house and the land serve as the frame of the narrative, symbolising the broader Earth and the challenges humans face in sharing and preserving it. That idea is what the story is originally based on.

Why did you want to tell a story about a family fighting each other for an inheritance? are there specific themes or topics you wanted to address?
The reason I wanted to tell a story of a family is that those are the stories everyone can relate to. Family is where life begins. It’s the core of what we are made of and shapes who we become, and this story dives into its dysfunction, uncovering flaws and complexities inherent in us all. It centres on the pervasive issues of boundary violations, jealousy, power struggles and family dynamics, reflecting the universal desire to claim the largest piece of what we need to share. Exploring the oldest and most intricate connections of family ties, it also dives into the core human need, the need for belonging and acceptance.

The first four episodes focus on the individual characters separately

And why was Iceland’s tourism industry the perfect setting for the story?
We believed it would resonate internationally. The focus on a typical Icelandic whale-watching company and the influx of tourists post-banking crisis in our small country of 400,000 people provides a frame that we believed would captivate audiences globally – the themes of greed and the sudden opportunity to partake in the tourism boom after the nation’s downfall.

How did you outline the different characters in the family and their motivations through the story?
Lóa, the mother, is the most influential one. She is a self-centred alcoholic, an enigma even to her own children; a respected poet who spends most of her time at the summer house writing and taking care of her beloved flowers. Over the years, her secrets have piled up, but now she wants to share the company and the summer house with her grown-up children to make up for all her failures and absence.

Gunnar, the father, is the patriarch, the head of the family business. Distant and prickly, he goes to great lengths to hide his flaws from his family. He is a towering presence in the lives of his children, who longed for his approval, and casts a long shadow over their lives even after his death.

Arndís is the eldest sibling. An ambitious, cutthroat businesswoman with a steel-clad front and chaotic emotional life, she runs her own luxury travel company, surpassing her father’s success. She often took care of young Elvar and Rúna while their parents were busy working, fighting or socialising.

Elvar is the middle child and the only son: a bottled-up alcoholic in denial. Originally a kindhearted teacher, he went to work for the family company to please his father. Elvar’s obsession with proving himself to his father, even after his death, is what makes his life so complicated.

Rúna is the youngest, the parents’ favourite. She is an introvert with a crippling fear of failing her mother. She’s shopaholic, but all she wants is a fresh start, to learn how to be responsible for her own life and finally grow up.

As well as showrunning, Hrafnsdóttir also stars as Arndís, one of the siblings

The series is written with Ottó Geir Borg and Tyrfingur Tyrfingsson. How did you work together on the show?
It was great to have Ottó Geir Borg and Tyrfingur Tyrfingsson with me as co-writers, as both of them are extremely talented. The writing process went really well, but at a certain point Ottó had to withdraw due to other commitments, leaving me to continue the writing process alone. When I sensed that the scripts were nearly completed but needed a final touch, I sought out Tyrfingur. His expertise in satirical humor and profound sarcasm contributed an essential flavour to the project.

Do you have a specific writing process or style?
Not particularly, no. The style depends on what kind of project I’m writing. To have this clear focus on the characters in the first four episodes is something I found very interesting and I wouldn’t have done it differently. In this story, it was crucial to dive into the background of each of the characters.

You also play Arndís – was this part of the plan?
Not when we were writing the scripts, no. But when the casting process began, I was encouraged to play that role by others. And it also sort of felt easy for me to do it since I also created the character.

As the director, what is the show’s visual style and how did you achieve this?
The frames are filled with symbols and metaphors that hold significant weight in my visual storytelling, like the dark walls in the summer house, the large tree, the autumn, flowers and fire. But what gave me great confidence when we started shooting was my cooperation with the talented DOP, Konrad Widelski from Belgium, who knew exactly what he was doing and almost read my thoughts. We had effortless communication and agreed from the beginning on the visual style.

The Icelandic tourism industry is key to the storyline

You act in, direct and produce the series. How did you juggle so many roles on set?
Experience made it possible, and also the fact that I was the writer, so I knew by heart all the details I needed to focus on. I also had a great and very experienced first assistant director that went on the monitor when I had to step in front of the camera, Garún, who made it possible for me to both direct and act. It’s getting more common for actors to direct and produce their own projects. Keeping holistic control of something you created yourself from the beginning is important to artists and, if it’s possible, it can be very beneficial for the outcome.

What challenges did you face writing or making the show?
The biggest challenge I faced was finding the right people to take on this journey with me. Creating a big project like this demands huge amount of trust, skills and tolerance, but it went well. Guðný Guðjónsdóttir has years of experience as former CEO and CFO of Sagafilm, Polarama came on board, the crew was totally amazing and the actors gave such a great performance. Post-production was very demanding but, in the end, it all came together and I’m really happy with the outcome.

What are you working on next?
In my upcoming project, I’ll solely focus on directing. I consider it a great privilege to be invited to join a project someone else has created from the start. In March, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson and I will co-direct Vigdis, a four-part drama series based on the inspiring true story of the world’s first elected female president, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir. The series is produced by Rakel Garðarsdóttir, Ágústa Ólafsdóttir and the talented team Vesturport. I’m also developing my second feature, which I will present as a part of the Discovery programme at Göteborg film festival.

How do you see the Icelandic television business evolving as international audiences watch series from the country?
I believe the Icelandic industry is undergoing a transformative phase. This growing interest from international audiences encourages collaborations and provides opportunities for Icelandic creators to collaborate with talent on a global scale. It’s an exciting evolution of cross-border creativity, which is very important for us.

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