DVD Review: The Raven Flies (Hrafninn flýgur )

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 Once Upon a Time in the North: Icelandic sagas reinterpreted as a brutal Spaghetti Western

After directing Iceland’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 55th Academy Awards Hrafn Gunnlaugsson approached Swedish film producer Bo Jönsson and discussed the possibility of producing a film set in the Viking age. Disappointed with Hollywood attempts at representing the era the director was determined to present the most authentic depiction to date.

Initially planning to adapt a saga, Hrafn Gunnlaugsson also explored the possibility of bringing Halldór Laxness’ novel The Happy Warriors to the big screen before deciding to write an original story.

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Considered by experts to be one of the most significant Viking era films The Raven Flies is the first instalment in a trilogy set around the time of Iceland’s conversion to Christianity. Despite being critically acclaimed throughout Scandinavia, the film was initially scorned by Iceland’s critics. In recent years it has been re-evaluated and is now regarded as pivotal moment in the“spring of Icelandic filmmaking” that occurred during the early 1980s.

Released when the nation’s film industry was finding its voice Hrafn Gunnlaugsson’s motion picture drew inspiration from the revenge narratives contained within the family sagas and paid homage to Akira Kurosawa, Sergio Leone, and John Ford. This mixture of Icelandic literary heritage and Spaghetti Western tropes found a cult following in America when a re-edited version was released on video as Revenge of the Barbarians.

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Brooding and mythic, The Raven Flies is a ferocious movie that made history as the Icelandic film industry’s first co-production with an international partner. Teaming up with a Swedish production company enabled the film and its director to qualify for the Guldbagge Awards. Hrafn Gunnlaugsson’s award for Best Director and the film’s subsequently being voted one of the decade’s most outstanding films by the Tokyo Inyternational Film Festival provided an early indication of Icelandic filmmakers ambitions to become major players in the global marketplace.

Ostensibly a vengeance narrative. Vikings visit Ireland to plunder the lands and capture women. A young boy witnesses the murder of his parents and is unable to prevent his sister’s abduction. Twenty years later Gestur (Jakob Þór Einarsson) arrives on an Icelandic beach after several years searching Scandinavia for information about the raiders and his sister’s whereabouts.

Gestur exploits the raiders suspicions and sets blood-brothers on a path of mutually assured destruction.

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Frequently compared to Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Leone’s For a Fistful of Dollars, The Raven Flies reprises themes and plot points present in both films. The use of familiar reference points is a Trojan horse which enabled Hrafn Gunnlaugsson to exploit genre conventions and present a Saga inspired narrative in a format appealing to action movie fans.

A thrilling, impeccably researched, blood soaked epic, gritter than Viking age films produced by Hollywood up to that point. Single-minded in his determination to create the definitive Viking screen saga, Hrafn Gunnlaugsson studied artefacts in museums and visited the remains of a township. Costumes and props were intentionally designed to be authentic recreations of items worn and used by people in the late ninth century.

Atypically for the era, attempts to convey a sense of believability extended to action sequences. The director employed a Native American knife thrower to teach cast members how to accurately use the weapons.

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Intensifying the feeling of brutality experienced on set, real blood supplied from a local slaughterhouse was used instead of more commonly applied substitutes.

Demonstrating the level of unshakable commitment to the project Hrafn Gunnlaugsson jeopardised his health by staying awake for six days at a time throughout the production to ensure his vision was successfully captured on celluloid.

Energetic, and visually striking, The Raven Flies brings the sagas to a new audience without philosophising or excessive exposition. Redefining the screen image of Vikings its influence continues to be felt in Iceland and abroad.

A subtitled DVD is available to order from nammi.is

CASE: Baldvin Z Interviewed

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Trapped director speaks exclusively about his new series

Several shades darker than any other Nordic Noir series to hit our screens Case is a game changing psychological drama that shakes up the genre. Risk-taking and uncompromising, it is a self-contained spin off from the legal drama The Court.

Director Baldvin Z generously agreed to meet in Reykjavik and spend a morning talking about the series.

An acclaimed director (Jitters, Life in a Fishbowl) Baldvin Z has been producing films since the age of 11. He scripted and produced the black comedy series Hæ Gosi. Baldvin recently directed three episodes of Trapped.

*Spoiler warning*

What attracted you to Case?

In the beginning I got the the first three episodes of the scripts. I read through it and I had recently watched BroadchurchI liked Broadchurch a lot and when I was reading through Case, I thought to myself because they had changed the core elements of the TV series it was a court drama and I didn’t like that. I didn’t want to do a TV series like that but they said “we are changing a lot so please read it.” And when I started to read it there was something about the structure of the scripts that reminded me of Broadchurch. So I thought to myself wow, maybe we have a TV series there which has this real character driven drama for us to to do because we haven’t done a lot of it here in Iceland. And then when all the elements came into it about the young girls, because I’m working on a film for next year which is a film about girls who are using drugs and they are trafficking here in Iceland. It’s something that we haven’t done a film about here in iceland at least. So it’s touched a few elements in my film also. So it somehow all of my interests, for now, what I’m interested in exactly at this moment were in this TV series so I thought to myself OK I have to do this. I like the style and i like the structure. When i read it through the whole nine episodes we did a lot of changes. We actually rewrote the last three episodes before shooting. I felt like we were going away from what we began with and i want to keep that drama through the whole TV series. Also I like stories from Reykjavik. I like dark stories and as you can see in my project there’s not a lot of sheeps, or horses or mountains or anything. So it’s the dark side of Iceland.

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How hard was it for the actors to shake off those characters at the end of the day and how hard was it for you to step away?

When you go to these dark, dark alleys of life it can be really hard to just go home and eat food with your children because you know that what is around the corner for them is these things. This is happening all over. So it can be very hard but I think we work like like cops and everybody does who are working in this environment. You start to create this very strange humour around your world so somehow we laugh through this in some strange particular way just to manage to create these things. So. like you know, if you work with cops for a couple of days you see this sarcastic, dark humour they have and this is something that we developed  when we realised when we are in this dark project. But I know for like instance Magnus who plays Logi it was very hard for him. He was there for like four months and the day he stopped shooting he went home shaved his head, shaved his beard and he just came to the wrap party so happy. He got rid of him. I think everybody has their own way of dealing with it.

Readers might not be aware that this is a spin-off from another series called The Court. It’s self-contained. At the end of The Court Magnus’ character was in a comfortable place. This time we meet him he’s instantly in a very dark place. How hard was it or was it hard to persuade him to take this new very intense approach?

No, it wasn’t so hard. I created a little story between those two series for Magnus and for those characters who crossover into this new series and after I have explained what happened in those six years they related to it very instantly. They went OK so he fucked everything up, he has been drinking for three-four years and blah blah blah blah. The channel wanted to do a third season but we wanted to create a new TV series and that’s the reason this conflict came up so we needed we need to do a third season of The Court. We ended up doing this spinoff. So i was forced to create this six year story. And you can only see it in the child of Brynhildr. In the second episode he wakes up at her home and it comes out her child is there. And he’s like six years old and that’s the child who was born at the end of the second season. So that’s how we explain how far away. The other season was.

If Case goes to a second season will we get more hints about those lost years?

Yeah more and more I think. Definitely. We did it in a very short way when Logi meets the old lawyer, Benedikt,  once in the hallway. He does this monologue about how he fucked everything up and how he took Brynhildr into his office. That’s the only thing we hear about those six years. I think yes we should definitely dig deeper into those six years.

This is a game changer series. It’s a game changer for Sagafilm, it’s a game changer for Icelandic TV. It’s going to raise the profile. It’s coming hot on the heels of Trapped so there’s already international interest. Whereas Trapped had a more global feel to it the narrative could take place as it is going to take place in America because of the remake. Whereas Case was almost a case of now you’ve seen that this is what we can do on our own terms. Are you excited about the fact that your profile is going to raise over the next couple of years as the series is seen in Germany, France, UK, America?

Of course I’m excited about it. Ultimately because I’m taking a step now and I’m developing a new TV series with one of the scriptwriters of Case. So we are doing our own TV show now. Having been a part of Trapped, doing this… This is somehow all falling into my lap. This is great. I’m very excited. It’s a privilege to be able to do TV and films. I can’t think of anything better as a filmmaker.

There used to be snobbery about TV. Film directors wouldn’t work in TV. Now if anything it seems to be the other way round. The smartest stuff at the moment is on TV. We’re living in a golden age..

Of TV. Yeah, definitely.

It’s come from two directions. It’s come from American companies like HBO and also the Nordic countries. They’ve shown the power of the medium. That you can tell really great stories…

Yeah definitely. And hopefully, I really hope that I will get a chance to direct TV series abroad someday. Scandinavia or U.S. I would like to try it to go into the big monster of TV making. It would probably be very fun. Why bother if you don’t want to take steps and challenge yourself? Definitely.

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In Iceland a limited number of films get produced each year. Similarly, a very limited number of TV series due to funding. Now there is a greater move towards attracting investment from overseas. That could lead to more homegrown content being produced.

Yeah and there is one other thing happening also because there’s a lot of people here in Iceland who has a lot of money and. I know that they are interested now also in this field of business because what Trapped did for us is that business people here in Iceland are now looking into TV and film and thinking OK is there a chance here to to gain some money off this? I think what will be the biggest change here now for us is that investors in Iceland are ready to take a look at this which is really good so our bankers will hopefully invest money in TV and film here in Iceland.

Might that lead to only certain types of films and TV series being financed?

It could be, it could be but what is happening now in Iceland I think is something that because we are a small nation and we are few, like sixteen or seventeen years ago Iceland’s music sort of grew up and we became part of the world. We suddenly found out that we can do it like others. And I think we are at this moment in filmmaking also. Definitely. We are realizing we can be part of the world and I think we realize that if we were to want to do that we need more money to create our stuff. We need more time and we need more people. So whatever the money comes from, if it’s the the investors or abroad, it’s just good for the industry. But I hope it won’t lead to that we only do like very commercial stuff and stuff like that. I hope there will be room for a series like Case.

Iceland is getting increased investment at the moment. One problem I’m aware of is a lack of university level training. Many people have to go overseas. Didn’t you go to Norway?

I went to Norway and then Denmark. I didn’t do a proper school. I’ve done a lot of workshops and stuff like that but I haven’t been doing anything else since I was eleven than short films and films. It’s more learnt by doing. I have been to workshops in Norway and Denmark and even I went to Germany once also. And I’ve been doing like photographing the only thing I’ve not studied a lot is directing but I’ve studied a lot of other stuff around it. I have a strange path as a filmmaker I think.

Gregg Toland told Orson Welles that he could teach him everything he needed to know in 24 hours. It’s just theory, the rest you learn by doing.

Yeah definitely, that is what is good with schools. You get four years to, you know, do your mistakes and do your stuff. I applied for the Danish film school in 2006 I think or 2005 but I didn’t get in. I released Jitters in 2010 and I always looked at Jitters as my graduation film. It was a very hard film to make and a learning process. Life in a Fishbowl was that too. Case was that too. Everything is a learning process and that is what is so fascinating about this job. You’re always doing something that you don’t have a clue how are you going to do it.

I may be wrong here but I think I have detected some influences in your work. Your episodes of Trapped have some homages to Hitchcock. I didn’t know if that was deliberate or if you were following a house style that Baltasar had set down.

We talked a lot about Hitchcock when we were preparing but no I didn’t intentionally do it. Maybe it’s just got in.

Case has a definite visual style. The cameras are very fluid. Use of light contrasts with the characters’ darkness reminded me of Insomnia. I didn’t know if that was a definite stylistic decision or if you’d just absorbed the film.

When I told them that I wanted to do the TV series in the summer when we have all day long sun outside… But still I was going to create this dark environment with lighting. And that was our challenge to make as dark a TV series as we could both in terms of filming and story wise in this bright summertime. I thought it was very interesting to create this dark world in this bright light.

Did you agree to direct Case before you signed on for Trapped.

Yes. Actually I signed the contract of Case before I premièred Life in a Fishbowl. Just like two or three months before and then Life in a Fishbowl came out and then Baltasar contacted me after he saw Life in a Fishbowl and he wanted me to do those first episodes. He told me he liked the style of how I presented characters, how I approached characters and he wanted that in the first three episodes while we were introducing characters and stories. There was a conflict for a while because it almost hit each other. What happened was that I got permission to shoot my episodes first in Trapped. I went over to Case in February and I had like three or four scenes left in Trapped. The other directors did those scenes for me so I could go to Case. I think I shot like six features in ten months when I was working on Case and Trapped. It was a pretty hard time. Very hard to direct so much stuff in so a short period. I signed on for Case before Trapped.

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You’ve directed about eight hours of television. It’s very mature. It’s confident. It’s a dark Reykjavik. The themes are very relevant. The previous series The Court were loosely based on true stories. Was Case totally invented?

No. It is based on an old case from 2005 and 2006. A real case here in Iceland. What happened while we were creating, while we were casting their were actors involved in that old case and I didn’t know about it while we were casting. We just found out and they said to us “we know this case because our daughter was involved in this case.” So suddenly we got very inside information from this case.

Music is very important in terms of conveying the mood. I gather that you commissioned the music before shooting.

Yeah. I did it also in Live in a Fishbowl but with a different composer. There I worked with Ólafur Arnalds. It worked very well for me. We did some, you know, some elements just with reading the script together and I was verbally trying to create the mood I wanted. We did actually a live performance and he just played in some scores and actually one of them ended up as one of the main themes in Broadchurch. Now I worked with another man called Pétur Jónsson and we are good friends and I told him I wanted to try to do this again. I edited together of a few films and TV shows to sort of show how I saw the mood of it. We started to create some DNAs over that. Somehow we just hit it right away so I used it also on set and I used it for actors to listen to to get in the mood. I think I will continue working like this. I like this style.

With the score already in place did that affect the rhythm of your editing?

Yeah it definitely did because they had a lot of stuff working with while they were editing. The main editor of Case he had been working on The Court and Pressa and all these TV shows which have a very different style of editing and shooting. It’s a fast pace TV series so I sat down with him and told him that we are not going to do that now. I am shooting the TV series like this and I want to live and do long shoots. If I can create acting and the mood and the settings in one shot I will do it because I think it’s more efficient. I get more out of it if I’m not cutting away. I love films like Children of Men and Revenant where they are using this kind of… and Bergman. Wow. It’s a fake, Bergman, it’s not a one shot film. Have you seen Victoria? Wow. That’s amazing.

Would it be fair to say your work is characterised by a dark realism?

Yes I think so. I think that would be very fair to say.

So what is it about the darker aspects that attracts you?

Once I went to a lecture with David Lynch and I connected with him what he said, because he was asked the same question and he said “that’s because I’m such an optimistic and upright guy.” I smile a lot and I laugh a lot. So there’s something where I get from doing all of this kind of dark things that keeping me going on in my real life, you know. Like Life is a Fishbowl I can fairly say that many things in that film is based on my real life. So I got my share of dark elements and in a way I’ve been dealing with things at the same time but I am a very optimistic and happy guy. I’m not seeing in the near future that I’m going to do a comedy or anything but who knows, maybe. Somehow I’m not trying to do films so that people can you know…. I’m not trying to help anybody or saying anything. I’m not creating some big message I’m just telling stories but I’m very glad when people find something in the stories that helps them. We even met a woman who stopped drinking after watching Life in a Fishbowl. She met Thorsteinn (Bachmann) and said “you just changed my life” and when you hear something like that that’s amazing. I love it. And Jitters my first film it is now today in the school system of Iceland. So every tenth grader, they have to watch the film and learn about it because it’s explains these times for them. It helps them. I just love it. It’s great.

I’d say that your feature film Life in a Fishbowl explains modern Iceland. Certainly to a UK audience it was one of the first films to convey the emotional impact of the crash. It wasn’t just figures on a balance sheet, lives were destroyed.

Yeah, yeah definitely. Early stages of the script it didn’t happen in this period. It wasn’t until the financial crash I somehow I got the right person for the third character and before the crash he was a lawyer. While we were developing the script I realized that I could put it in this environment. It was beautiful. Actually this was supposed to be my first film. I was working on the script when I got the chance to do Jitters. And I’m very glad that I did Jitters first because we needed this time to see the crash from a little bit more distance. If i’d done it like two years later it hadn’t been the same, the impact and the feeling that we got from it. So I just think Life in a Fishbowl came out at exactly the right time for Iceland at least.

So what are you working on now?

I have a feature that we are shooting next year with the same producers that did Jitters and Life in a Fishbowl with me. It’s a coming of age story about two girls who get involved in the drug world here in Reykjavik. We call them the lost girls because they are always missing from time to time. When I started to investigate what they are doing when they are missing that is when I felt OK I have to tell this story. I’m also developing a TV series with Andri who wrote the Case. The strange thing happened that our biggest and oldest phone company who was a distributor here like Netflix here in Iceland, this is the first TV series that they buy to put straight onto VOD. Not to air on television. It’s the first Netflix concept here in Iceland. We are also working with a company in the U.S with this TV series. It’s a mixture of Iceland and U.S. We are just on a very early early stages. We’re just writing the script. We are actually shooting next month a little promotional trailer for it. We’re hoping that we’re going to shoot in 2018.

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Might VOD be another way for the Icelandic film industry to flourish internationally?

Definitely. Definitely. And because we have these two big companies who are distributors here in Iceland for VOD which is Siemens which is an old phone company and Vodafone and if they get involved because they are buying this TV series then that is something that has never happened before in Iceland. The distributors are a phone company that is buying this series. So money is flowing again all around which is great.

The modern Icelandic film industry is relatively young. It began in 1980 with the release of Land and Sons. Now it’s emerged as a confident force that’s ready to take its place on the world stage. Do you think this is going to continue? Will we see a lot more critically acclaimed films coming from Iceland in the years to come?

Definitely. Definitely. Of course there are a lot of films and. I think also TV series that haven’t been you know haven’t been seen by the world. I know it’s really really good stuff but we just didn’t have the tools and equipment to make everybody see them. So we have great directors, upcoming directors, old directors and filmmaking is booming in iceland at the moment.

Thanks to Baldvin Z and Sagafilm  

Trapped: Sigurjón Kjartansson Interviewed

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Trapped’s head writer discusses the breakout hit

Making history as the first Icelandic crime series to air in the UK, Trapped‘s complex web of murder, corruption, and intensely claustrophobic atmosphere instantly captivated Nordic Noir fans.

Head writer Sigurjón Kjartansson kindly agreed to meet in a Reykjavik coffee shop and discuss the series, his career to date, and future plans.

Before embarking on successful writing career Sigurjón was a member of influential hard rock band HAM. Away from music, a comedy partnership with future Mayor of Reykjavik Jon Gnarr kick started a career in television. Sigurjón has created and co-created some of the most successful TV series in Icelandic history: The Press (Pressa), The Court (Réttur). An adaptation of Aevar Orn Josepsson’s noir novels was a ratings smash.

Since 2012 Sigurjón has been Head of Development at RVK Studios. Together with Baltasar Kormákur (Jar City, Everest) and Magnús V. Sigurdsson, Sigurjón shepherded the series that would be a success in Iceland, France, Germany, Norway, and the UK.

Trapped is the first Icelandic drama series to air in the UK. It’s arrived at a time when the Icelandic film and TV industry is flourishing. Some really great stuff is on the way. Case is coming soon from Sagafilm also from your production company The Oath will be released later n the year. Do you feel more confident about the future prospects internationally for Icelandic film and TV?

Definitely. Definitely. Film was actually of ahead of TV there. There have been successes like ten years ago with Jar City in the UK and Europe and other movies. Some of them by Baltasar and others like Of Horses and Men, etc. We kind of when we started Trapped like four years ago. More than four years ago. Then it was like me and Baltasar we were talking about doing television on the same model as he had succeeded in films. We started developing and going round Europe to raise funding for this.

I noticed on the end credits that their are multiple partners. The funding isn’t just from Icelandic Film Fund.

No, no. That was earlier. The Press and The Court series they were mostly just funded locally. It was the TV station and the film and TV fund and also sometimes we got something from the Nordic fund. That was it. That’s how we did the series. It was very cheap. That’s how we did it. OK we could do like six times 45 minutes, shoot for 35 days and just get on with it. But that’s just… You don’t get any further than that, I mean this is just there. With ready made material you don’t get the pressure of selling it abroad . It’s not that impressive, you know. And we kind of knew that of course making Trapped would be much more expensive mostly because we had to shoot it out of town and it was a longer series. It was ten times 50 minutes and that meant we had to have partners in Germany, at least, and preferably France which we did. France television said yes from the board. And then finally when ZDF said yes we knew that we were finally going into production.

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Do you think this is a new form of production that may become commonplace in Icelandic TV? Securing funding from international partners.

I think this is key. We want to make TV comparable to foreign TV. We need to. Icelandic audiences are used to quality television from all over the world. When they see Icelandic television it has to be comparable. And we are competing with with that. So when it’s successful the whole nation is watching and then its very successful. Other than that it also ensures if you just look at from the local point of view it also secures the local station. They know that they would never be able to finance the whole thing altogether but maybe ten percent and maybe they can come up with development fee. That is very good for us. We gain from that. So we can start writing and pitching for the rest of the funding. We kind of quickly realized if it’s not flying, I’m not saying we have never been there, but it’s like we should kind of quickly realise that if it’s not flying abroad it’s not flying., it’s  probably not a good series because… We have, I mean number one as in Trapped, tried to be as local as possible. We never thought OK we are making an international series. It was just.. We just went with it. This is drama. This is a small town. It’s accidentally in Iceland. It could happen everywhere. We’re just making good drama and that travels.

I think you are right in the sense that it could happen anywhere. The isolated village as a concept there are other examples in film and literature. For instance, John Wyndham The Midwych Cuckoos which was filmed as Village of Damned.

That could have happened in Iceland. (laughs)

It’s not a crime story but it’s an example of the isolated community facing external and internal threats. You’ve added Icelandic elements to it. The weather is a character in any Icelandic drama. Having just driven down from from the north I know…

Did you go to Siglufjörður? The place where we shot.

I’m going there in November. I think it’s best to experience it when the weather is at its most extreme.

Of course but actually the most extreme weather scenes we shot they were actually shot in April 2015. It was like crazy. We had this weekend coming. We were editing All the principal photography was finished. We were kind of we need more weather, OK maybe we’ll do it in the fall. In the end this weather forecast came that it would be like crazy this weekend of like the thirteenth of April or something. So I went with a crew there to shoot those crazy scenes.

Fortitude filmed in Iceland. They were unlucky. They had no snow and had to import fake snow.

That’s why we decided not to shoot it in the east. Because Fortitude had such a bad experience there. So we moved the scenario up north to Siglufjörður where we were kind of secure. Snow during the winter. We were very lucky. It was the best weather we could have. It was always changing but kind of always in the right moments in the scripts. It was kind of as if the weather gods had read the script.

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I’ve worked on film sets before and the weather can be a logistical nightmare, Suddenly you’ve got to hire equipment for a couple of extra days due to snow, wind, or rain. How fluid did you have to be when filming in Siglufjörður?

We had some weather covers. All the scenes in Henrika’s apartment are shot north. Most of the interiors we shot here in Reykjavik. So that was our main weather cover. We knew that if it is too good weather or something then we are going to shoot there. There was never a day  We never had a day when we could shoot. We were very lucky there.

In the UK you are primarily known for Trapped. Your CV is more diverse. You’re an actor. I recently saw you in Virgin Mountain. I’ve also seen you in The Night Shift. You’ve had a career in comedy. As a musician you’ve been a member of an influential band. Your scriptwriting CV is quite diverse. You’re not just a crime writer. You work in a number of genres. One thing I’ve noticed in your work is a very strong sense of timing. You know how to pace a scene, how to pace tension. Initially I was thinking this was because of your work in comedy. Successful comedy is all about timing. Also as a musician…

Yeah, music is all about timing. It’s all about musicality. To be musical, to have a musical talent is the ground of so many other things. I think you can’t really be a good writer unless you have some music in you. I’m flattered to hear that you sense timing.

Did you have any formal training in scriptwriting?

No not really. I didn’t have any formal training in scriptwriting. All I learned was from comedy. We started me and Jón Gnarr, the guy who later became Mayor of Reykjavik, it was like us two… When I was kind of getting frustrated with music. It was not going very well. We were old friends and everything we did was kind of funny accidentally. We had this comedic thing between us One thing led to another and we got a shot at RUV, the state TV, and they offered us a slot in a weekly news programme for a comedy slot. It was kind of how to behave. It was not conventional sketches. It was more like some propaganda videos or something. We started writing that on a typewriter. It is in 1995. It got very successful and that winter we became comedians all of a sudden before we planned it. It was funny stuff and then we started on radio. Then we kind of figured out that this could be our bread and butter. And then we we started on Channel Two with with a comedy show called Blood Brothers or whatever you want to call it in English. That was a more conventional sketch show in the vein of Big Train or The Fast Show. Then I really figured out what I like best about doing this kind of work was writing and editing it. And then everything in between was kind of, you know, something that had to be done but it was nuanced for me. I didn’t like being in front of the camera. I didn’t like being on set, it was waiting and stuff like that. But that was something that off course I knew was necessary but I really liked the writing part and also being in the editing room and seeing the final touches. After that show ended, like after five series, then we made another and then I head wrote with other people another sketch show and then another sketch show. In the end it was in like 2005 I had written something around 1000 sketches that were produced on television. I was like the sketch master. I realised if I don’t write another sketch in my life I will be quite happy. It’s fine. I know how to do it. It has to be a beginning, middle and an end and a funny in the beginning and a surprise and everything. So I started with Óskar Jónasson who is the co-creator of Pressa . Channel 2 had requested, “we need crime, we need a crime show.” Me and Óskar we came up with this idea. and I just went with it I just dived into it… Oh writing drama, no problem because it’s mostly scene after scene after scene. Like sketches it’s scenes with a beginning, middle, and an end but they don’t have to be funny so I’m not burdened with that thing. It’s much easier actually. Of course I read some books about how to do it and things like that. I like that. In the first season of Pressa I mastered this.

Your previous series The Press, The Court, Ástríður were written for a domestic audience. With Trapped were you aware from the start that it was going to be international?

Yeah I was aware of it but still I was writing for a domestic audience. It was main thing that it should all be believable and stuff like that. I was in a new territory. I felt like that very early because working with Baltasar was like a step up for me. This was a guy who really knows what he’s doing and I learned a lot from him. This four years of making Trapped is like a university. I feel like I’m graduating now and we have kind of joked about it. So that he is my mentor. He has such a strong vision. We share that vision and it’s very refreshing to really work with someone who really shares your vision and knows so well how to make it happen.

One of Baltasar’s skills is his ability to pitch projects at the right level. He can shoot in a way that’s appealing to international audiences but at the same time he can also be more specific for an Icelandic context. That’s a very rare skill to be able to work simultaneously for two audiences.

Of course he’s like every artist torn between being really himself and being the Hollywood guy who brings in the goods for the studio. And he has done it. I would say Contraband and 2 Guns are like studio films that he made and they did they had to do. The Deep was very much him. His very ice cold realism. I think he brought it into Everest as well. I saw Baltasar’s persona in that film and in Trapped.

I noticed in your writing themes that have appeared in some of your earlier work. The human trafficking and real estate scams were in The Court and you’ve revisited the themes in Trapped.

Terrible to have such a guy who has seen it all. (laughs) So you can read me like an open book.

An English writer Alan Bennett said something to the effect that writers only have a few beans in their tin to rattle. It’s true that themes or passions recur in most writers work.

Human trafficking is my passion. I have to say I really recognise what you are saying.

Until I’d seen your work I wasn’t even aware that human trafficking was even an issue in Iceland.

It’s all over. It’s everywhere. It’s also in Iceland. Maybe that’s the fascinating part in it because we live in this small, peaceful island and all the evils of the world are coming home.

Until the crash people living in the UK may have thought of Iceland as a utopia. After the meltdown cracks started to appear. Your work shows some of those cracks. Season one of The Court takes place a few months after the crash. We see the casualties, corrupt forms of capitalism and this law firm is effectively the white knight stepping in to right this injustices.

Yeah, yeah. This is all there. I remember when we were plotting the third season of The Press we were kind OK where do we go from here? We started to map out all the evils in the world. It was like what is the ultimate evil? What is the high concept evil? Racism, human trafficking, stuff like that. We issued that there and of course drugs and young people disappearing which happens all the time here in Iceland. Young girls who are wanted and of course they come home after two weeks but in the end they have been kind of captured in some party in some suburb.

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You are not strictly a crime writer. You have more strings to your bow. It’s very easy for writers to get typecast whereas you are just a writer full stop. You write comedy and and drama. I’ve noticed a social conscience in your work. Do you recognise that or do just you see yourself as a dramatist first and foremost.

Maybe I’m a kind of old style crime writer in that sense. My favourite crime writer is Henning Mankell for instance. I really like that old school Swedish school that murder and crime is something that is just on the tip of a bigger iceberg. There is a social commentary there. Trapped is all about that. We are very synchronised in that opinion. We were trying to tell a story where greed and short-sightedness is the main evil. That’s the main thing and I think all stories should have a deeper meaning. In that sense you are right. I follow politics. I can be very opinionated when I have had three whiskeys with my friends. (laughs)

Is it opinion or is it passion? There is passion in your work. There is an ideological commitment. One of my favourite pieces of your writing is the fifth episode of The Court’s second season. In many respects it’s unique in so called Nordic Noir. The main plotline has Logi trying to ascertain if he has been framed. Then you have this delightful storyline about an adult with learning disabilities fighting for the right to give birth to a child. Socially committed storyline that because of the way it ended I felt it may have advanced the rights of the learning disability community.

Maybe in some way. This is a story that I mapped out with Margrét Örnólfsdóttir who is a very good writing partner of mine. That was something that came up in the writers room. Yeah I have opinions about those things. Right now I’m not connecting that passionately about it now because I’ve been over it. It’s like six years since we made it. I have passion for lots of things. I try to to to put it in the shows I;’m writing. Still it’s not like I’m going to make a statement here. It’s more like subconscious things.

The American remake of Trapped is happening.

So I hear. There are some negotiations. I’m not sure about how much I will be involved in that.

What are you working on at the moment?

It’s OK to say that we are thinking about series two. That’s safe to say that now. We are in some process there and we hope to be able to bring Trapped back in like two years or so. Of course this all takes time. There’s no way we are going to be ready with a new series in year. Still of course we see how the pacing is in Europe in general. The Bridge II didn’t come until two years later. Two years after that they had The Bridge III. The French series The Returned and even Happy Valley didn’t come back until two years later. I think it’s OK. It’s a lot of work all the time but now we are kind of we kind of in the we are finished but let’s start to think. We are there now. There is also another series I am excited about. I have been developing on the side while I’ve been writing Trapped and stuff like that. It’s called Katla. It’s a whole other thing. It’s not crime. It happens during an eruption in Iceland. A long eruption that has been going on for years. I’m not going to tell too much but we are now in the process of developing that and trying to get in production next year.

Perhaps you can’t answer this but do you see your career from now on balancing shows that have an international flavour with those that are more domestic?

Of course we are doing it at the RVK Studios where I joined. Well we formed it together. Me and Baltasar and Magnus Vidar Sigurdsson. It has been on four years now. Comedy is something we look at as domestic. We have produced a very funny comedy show by Hugleikur Dagsson called Hulli. It’s animation. You could say it’s in the vein of South Park or something. Now we are producing a series with Jon Gnarr. It’s called The Mayor where he plays the Mayor of Reykjavik but it’s a totally different version of the mayor he was. We are going into production this spring with that and I am producing it. We don’t look at that as a big export but still it’s good quality work. We think in terms of exports as well because it serves both purposes. That’s where we are now.

Nobody like ten years ago have thought that BBC would be airing subtitled material on a Saturday night and getting over a million viewers. This is just a cultural development. I ask myself why shouldn’t this happen in America? Of course we have success selling our show to The Weinstein Company but I don’t know what they are going to do. It’s exciting times because if British audiences and Australian audiences are buying and watching our material why shouldn’t American audiences? If you just watch the American box office for the last twenty years there were two movies that were huge. The first was The Passion of the Christ. All subtitled. The second was Inglorious Basterds. At least 40 percent of that film is subtitled. I rest my case.  

Thanks to Sigurjón Kjartansson and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

Trapped is available to order from Amazon

Icelandic Film Centre: Laufey Gudjonsdottir Interviewed

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Icelandic Film Centre’s Director speaks about the nation’s film industry 

Founded in 2003, the Icelandic Film Centre is an autonomous public body that provides financial support for domestic filmmaking and promotes Icelandic films at home and abroad. Since it’s inception Laufey Gudjonsdottir has been the Icelandic Film Centre’s Director.

There was the Icelandic Film Fund before. That was established in 1979 at a very small scale and then it grew. In 2003 there was the new law and regulation that took over from the previous so it was kind of re-established.

Since its inception in 1906 the Icelandic film industry has had notable successes at home and abroad. The average Icelander visits the cinema more frequently than any other European nation and will happily pay a premium to view domestic films. In the ever competitive international market Icelandic films have frequently struggled to secure widespread distribution despite receiving acclaim at festivals.

In 1991 Children of Nature became the first, and to date only, Icelandic film to be nominated for an Oscar. Signalling that the nation’s industry was enjoying a creative rebirth that would lead to a run of remarkable films (Jar City, Children, Noi the Albino, Life in a Fishbowl) the nomination drew the world-at-large’s attention to a filmmaking tradition that had previously been largely ignored.

I think that’s when the films came on the international map. There had been some like the film by Hrafn Gunnlaugsson, When the Raven Flies. It did really well in Sweden and was shown at the Berlinale. A big success in Sweden. There was some other films as well. The Oscar nomination was really what put it all on the map.’

Aside from  Trapped the only Icelandic show to air on UK screens is The Night Shift. How hard is it to get films and TV series screened in the UK?

We have not had that many film in the UK. Now I’m talking about the major festivals like London or Edinburgh. I suppose UK has been relatively closed for subtitled film in general. That concerns Icelandic films as well as any other. My sense is that UK is opening up a bit more.

The Swedish series Wallander that was remade in the UK with Kenneth Branagh, I think that was the big change. In the years since it was made I think the UK has opened up. We’ve had Forbrydelsen, The Bridge and other Nordic series have broken the walls.

DVD sales are in decline as people turn to online providers for content. Manufacturing costs may no longer be an obstacle. Might this be an opportunity to make Icelandic films available in the UK via a streaming service?

I think so. Eventually. Maybe I’m a bit of a optimist. Obviously it’s a new system of distribution and that affects the financial possibilities so the value chain has changed dramatically. We know how the distribution is already today and will be more or less but we don’t know how to meet financialy with the new model. It’s not paying enough to meet the costs of making new quality films or TV series. That’s the big battle we are, not only in Iceland but internationally we are fighting that.We already have good examples like Spotify with major bands or musicians selling a lot and still they get little in their pockets. That’s what we also see in films. Now when a windows closes there are fewer financial opportunities.

Once a film or series has been made available on an online platform the worry is that someone will crack whatever copy protections are in place and post the content to an illegal fileshare network. Making films available for an English speaking audience involves the added expense of generating subtitles. If a film leaks to a torrent site the loss of revenue may jeopardise future productions.

That’s why it’s so important to have it accessible on legal platforms. Most people understand that they have to pay for it. Making it easily accessible is vital. I think also with this new technologies and platforms it expands the world. For niche films like Icelandic films are generally, or any European art house, the niche gets bigger. We can easily reach Bangladesh or Australia. Everywhere. That’s really a great benefit. You can find your soulmates in an easier or more accessible way. Making your films and TV drama easily accessible is quite an important thing. I think that’s what we will probably be doing in the near future, to try and move track, to be able to have some kind of guide, if you want to see a film from this Iceland here’s where can you find it.

The film centre does not dealing with the public directly. We deal with distributors and producers and festival people. We will be probably be trying to get as much as we can in a streaming format. As soon as we have a digitised version of the older films then we will add them to it as well and then we will share the access. It will be one station in a way. I hope.

The first Icelandic film dates back to 1906. Films from that era were made with nitrate stock and must be kept in a temperature controlled environment to prevent spontaneous combustion. An important part of the nation’s cultural identity could be lost forever if these celluloid fragments are not preserved.

That’s what we are all concerned about. We are working on it and finding ways to restore them. We have separate archives for preserving but our goal is to make it accessible.

For the funding of future film productions what is the centre’s budget?

For the funding we have about four million Euros a year. It was cut down and we are hoping with the national economy recovering we will get some of it back.

With only four million to invest does that mean IFC can only support a limited number of films?

Very small number of films and each film not enough. It’s been a bit of struggle. For the possibility of a sustainable film environment we need three fully produced films per year to keep the people with the experience and know-how on board. Then again we also have to make these minimum three projects in a way they can be financially possible. That’s really the struggle we are in right now are we supporting each project with too little and then it’s a question of whether we increase for each and then we have fewer films. It’s a little like the wall can fall and we don’t know in which direction so it doesn’t matter from which side you to try to support it.

How does the Icelandic Film Centre determine which projects it will finance? What is the X-Factor that gets transforms a submission into a financed production?

There are far more applications than we can ever meet for happy results for the applicants. It’s the script, it’s the overall production set-up, how do we evaluate that it will end up as a successful film, what are the pros and cons, what are the weakness and strengths and so on. We only finance partially each project so you need other people to believe in it as well.

Sometimes it helps when we give the first letter of intent for the producer to go around and try to find co-financers and co-producers. You can never be sure whether you’ve got it right or not. We hope we are picking the right ones.

The Icelandic Film Centre is demonstrably committed to ensuring the artistic element is paramount in decisions regarding the commissioning of projects. A film that is successful internationally could subsidise the domestic industry.

Yes and that’s how we are thinking most of the time because the financing has to come from some other sources. It’s always important to have a good positive CV of Icelandic for the international scene. We also try to be the reliable source of information or whatever is needed for financiers and producers abroad who maybe seek our advice or they have to believe in our letter of intent, how reliable that is. We have to keep all the channels open. We try our best.

In recent years Iceland has become a hub for major international productions. Batman Begins, Die Another Day, Fortitude, Game of Thrones, Noah, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Thor: The Dark World are among the projects to take advantage of Iceland’s stunning landscapes.

Visiting film productions can apply for reimbursement of 20% of the costs incurred while filming in the country. As Iceland is a a member of the European Economic Area, films and TV series shot in the country usually receive European Content Status which means that they won’t be affected by quotas.

With several incentives in place filming in Iceland is an attractive prospective for filmmakers. shot in the country filmmakers can shoot in Iceland. From the Icelandic Film Centre’s perspective has this benefitted the local economy and filmaking culture? Are people getting access to training and employment opportunities?

Absolutely. I think because Iceland obviously is a small country and there are limited resources we can’t act like a big society because we are very small. There’s never been higher level film education. Film and media literacy is very limited in school.

How filmmaking was built up here in the eighties was because there were some Icelanders who had been studying films abroad and they brought contacts with them to Iceland. Also a little bit of money came, in some cases from Sweden and Germany. I think that’s how it started Even the model of co-production environment as we know it today in Europe it was not only about the money, it was also about the talent pool.

Later in the eighties and nineties the co-production model developed in such a way that Icelandic filmmakers really benefited from it and I think it’s really amazing how much artistic control they’ve had on the projects even though they’ve had so much financial support from abroad.

The people, the filmmakers have built up their infrastructure as a film environment and were used to listening and reasoning with the international community. Based on that it’s been hugely successful in attracting foreign productions because what they find here is not only the nature and the landscape and the accessibility to glaciers or rivers or deserts or whatever but also the infrastructure of the filmmakers that has been built. Even though it’s small it’s very solid.

Alongside it’s creative rebirth, the Icelandic film industry has been given a welcome shot in the arm by the number of international productions. How much of that rejuvenation is down to the work Icelandic Film Centre does? Was the centre actively promoting the country as a location?

No we don’t. We do at the international markets but there is also an Icelandic agency, Promote Iceland, that emphasises introducing Iceland as a location. Of course we are at the major markets and we also do it and Icelandic filmmakers do it themselves. They are very good ambassadors. I think in terms of as you were asking earlier especially for the technical crew the major foreign productions have been very good because we don’t have formal education at a high level but in a way that has been way to train and get yourself in higher positions. You train, learn, update yourself and get inspired.

At present Icelandic universities don’t offer courses in filmaking. Those who want to enter the industry have to study abroad or gain experience on local productions. Icelandic cinema has a distinct quality, it uses western modes of storytelling within a local context. Because the country doesn’t have a formal university programme are filmakers finding a cinematic voice that might otherwise have been quashed if they were exposed to theory?

I don’t know. I think you can always debate about this. There are always pros and cons for film school. Is it training time or is it infiltration time? You can always debate about that.

Prominent director Frederikson did not have a formal education. He was running a film club and he claims that he saw so many films that he got it. It’s probably a mix. I think the mix might be good. I think also that the storytelling tradition you may be referring to that. Icelanders have a certain way of telling a story that we’ve had through history. This oral way of storytelling. The Icelandic sagas are definitely different from most other literature. Maybe we still have this directness or sharpness or short wording. I don’t know.

What’s been the proudest achievement of your time at Icelandic Film Centre?

To be honest I don’t think of it that way. We’re just here to create the framework and try to maintain it. Sometimes we’re a bit like the window to the outer world in a way. People have directors and producers here with very limited resources. They have the maybe the capacity of making a film every fourth year. Our duty is to try and maintain all the channels open so they can step in and be updated on where to go, what to look for, and so on. The filmmakers are so great. I think they are great storytellers. It’s amazing how much quality they make with so limited resources.

We are hoping we will get a little bit more money in order to build up a more sustainability. We have to convince the authorities about that. I also think we have a lot of duties to do with heritage. We have to try and get that modernised and preserved in a digital way. We have to get more women on board. We have to hopefully enrich the film culture more because it all supports each other. It would also be good to have a talent development programme so that even if you are not ready for your big budget, even though it’s a low budget, feature film you could try out the ideas or make a small budget film. Even experienced filmmakers could have access to a smaller pool where they could try out some crazy ideas and find out if they work or not.

It’s not really the film centre’s duties but I think it would be very nice to have more media and film literacy. I think that’s important. Sadly it’s not been on the agenda here but I think that is so important for the future generations.

Lot of things to do. We would also like to promote the films on the internet. To get them accessible by the general public wherever they are.

Thanks to Laufey Gudjonsdottir and all at Icelandic Film Centre for making this interview possible.

For further information about the Icelandic Film Centre please visit:

http://www.icelandicfilmcentre.is/

TV Review: The Court – Series Two (Réttur II)

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Exemplary courtroom drama.

Shaking up Icelandic TV schedules, The Court‘s début season was an instant hit. Nominated for several awards, the nation’s first legal series suggested filmmakers were seeking new ways to produce crime drama. This successful experiment used genre as a prism to refract the anxieties and fears of Icelandic society as it came to terms with the economic crash.

The Court‘s première season was a supremely assured introduction to the staff at Law and Court Inc. Six solidly crafted episodes highlighted the diversity of cases that routinely flow through a legal practice. The lawyers personal lives were given equal prominence, ensuring the series stood apart from procedural based dramas.

Hitting the ground running at breakneck speed the series swiftly established its credentials as a solidly plotted study of the law’s strengths and failings. Could a return visit to the legal practice deliver another victory in the courtroom?

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Defying expectations of a carbon copy of the first season, the filmmakers have boldly tweaked the format. Although more searing in its criticism of the crash and its consequences, The Court counterbalances politically charged cases with emotionally potent investigations that may result in the viewer reevaluating their preconceptions.

A sensitively handled dramatisation of a pregnant woman with learning disability attempting to fight a legal challenge that if successful would compel her to forcibly have a termination raises profound questions about the universality of human rights.

With a noticeably increased budget the second season is significantly wider in scope. While The Court is fundamentally a character based drama, this batch of episodes features impressive stuntwork and a greater proportion of location filming.

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The return visit to Law and Court Inc’s offices continues to focus on maverick lawyer Logi (Magnús Jónsson), his partners Brynhildur (Jóhanna Vigdís Arnardóttir) and Hördur (Víkingur Kristjánsson).

Now a fully fledged partner in the firm, Logi has forsaken alcohol and has mellowed. In the past Logi boasted of never losing a case, he’s since become a highly skilled negotiator adept at plea bargaining. His new found sobriety and regular sessions with a therapist are part of an attempt to come to terms with the crime he was convicted of at eighteen. Having spent the past two decades haunted by guilt the revelation that evidence may have been falsified by the investigating officers has life changing consequences.

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Scripts for The Court‘s second season have greater depth, and tighter focus. Outclassing the impressive opening run, it matures into a confident programme filled with engaging characters and compelling storylines, A high quality series that may represent a new direction for Nordic Noir.  

DVD Review: The Court (Réttur)

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Understated legal drama delivers a compelling verdict.

Inspired by real-life cases, The Court is a seismic event in Icelandic TV’s landscape. Undoubtedly influenced by a succession of American courtroom dramas, it transposes the format onto a Nordic setting, demonstrating that law and justice are sometimes mutually exclusive areas of the legal system.

Confident, urgent, and colourful, Icelandic TV’s first legal drama is a socially charged series that deftly vacillates between moments of intensity and quirky humour. Forensically researched, it highlights the justice systems attempts to stamp out criminality one year after the global economic crisis.

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Overlooked for far too long, Iceland TV was largely ignored when the Nordic invasion of UK TV schedules and first occurred. While fans of subtitled drama were being introduced to series from other European countries the Icelandic film and TV industries steadfastly continued producing content comparable to anything being made elsewhere.

With interest in Icelandic content at an all time after BBC4’s screening of Trapped, fans seeking something new from the land of fire and ice will find The Court is the perfect entry point. Complex and nuanced writing accompanied by uniformly excellent performances mark this series out as one of the most significant dramas yet to be screened in the UK.

Vaulting beyond the confines of a workplace drama, The Court also focuses on the characters personal lives. In-depth characteristics, unexpected emotional journeys, and cleverly integrated backstories separate this series from other “case of the week” programming.

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The Court is based in the offices of legal practice Law and Court Inc. Hot shot lawyer Logi (Magnús Jónsson) has joined the firm on a trial basis promising to double the practice’s caseload within two months. A maverick living on the edge, professionally he has a high profile and an unequalled record. His proficiency and steel-like confidence conceals a private life blighted by personal demons. Imprisoned as a teenager for murder, he was later pardoned and is haunted by guilt. Unable to recall any details of the horrific crime, Logi uses alcohol to numb the pain.

Screenwriters Sigurjón Kjartansson (Trapped), Margrét Örnólfsdóttir, and Kristinn Thordarson intelligently play with expectations throughout the series. Balancing a judicious mix of plot and character driven moments, the writers have delivered an intriguing Nordic Noir filled with insights and observations of the Icelandic legal system. Even-handed in it’s treatment of the judiciary, The Court focuses on crime’s emotional impact on victims and their families.

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Blending case-of-the-week storylines with an ongoing investigation into a serial rapist The Court shatters the myth of a Nordic utopia and exposes society’s flaws in the immediate post financial meltdown era. Continuing the tradition of politically and socially conscious Nordic crime fiction The Court highlights attempts to crush criminal gangs involved in human trafficking and sexual exploitation.

The Court is a topical series which trounces the majority of American and British legal dramas. Peerless performances, supreme writing, and confident filmmaking combine to produce a show without a single wasted scene.

Highly recommended.   

A subtitled DVD is available to order from Shop Icelandic.

Book News: Kjell Ola Dahl to be published in the UK

Orenda Books signs bestselling Norwegian crime writer Kjell Ola Dahl in two-book deal

Karen Sullivan, publisher of Orenda Books, is delighted to announce the acquisition of World English Language rights for Norwegian crime writer Kjell Ola Dahl’s next two titles in the Gunnarstranda series, in a deal negotiated with Anne Cathrine Eng of Gyldendal Agency, in advance of the London Book Fair.

Karen says, ‘Kjell Ola Dahl is a magnificent writer, an international bestselling, award-winning author (most recently picking up the prestigious Brage and Riverton prizes) and certainly one of the key proponents of Nordic Noir. I am thrilled and excited to have the opportunity to publish his next two novels. Literary, fast-paced, with an uncanny psychological element, and some of the most seamless, tightly woven plots in crime fiction, Kjell Ola Dahl’s books are the perfect addition to the Orenda list, which hosts some of the finest names in international crime fiction. Kjell Ola has been on my wish list for some time, and this is an incredible acquisition for Orenda. I can’t wait to work with him and his inimitable translator, Don Bartlett, to get these titles out in English. I’m looking forward to a long and fruitful relationship.’

Kjell Ola says: ‘I was delighted when I learned that Karen Sullivan at Orenda Books would publish my books. I have heard a lot about her, and I am sure she will do an excellent job for me and my protagonist in the British market.’

Anne Cathrine says, ‘We are proud and very happy that Kjell Ola Dahl’s next two titles in the Gunnarstranda series will be published by Orenda Books. Karen Sullivan is a brilliant, very dedicated and enthusiastic publisher … She already publishes our Grand Master of Nordic Noir, Gunnar Staalesen, and has made the English publication of his books a resounding success.’

The Faithful Friends will be published in Spring 2017 and The Ice Swimmer (working titles) will be published later that year.

For more information visit Orenda Books’ website.