Iceland Noir 2014 – An Interview with Ragnar Bragason. Part One


Fans of cult TV series The Night Shift received an early Christmas present when director and co-writer Ragnar Bragason made a surprise appearance at the literary festival Iceland Noir.

One of the most prolific directors currently working in his home country’s film industry. Recipient of thirty two awards from The Icelandic Film and Television Academy. During the course of his fifteen year career he has worked in film, television, and theatre. His most recent movie Metalhead premièred at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Generously agreeing to spend a Saturday afternoon having lunch with fans, he fielded questions about The Night Shift with warmth and good humour. After the meal was over and our fellow diners drifted away to catch a panel in the main hall he spoke to Euro But Not Trash about the series, his early career, and future projects.

In this first part he speaks of starting in the industry and early influences.

Born in Reykjavik, Ragnar grew up in the fishing village Súðavik. His first experience of cinema was watching films in a tiny hall on Saturday mornings. Decades later a touring festival would screen his film Metalhead in the very same makeshift cinema that had ignited a lifelong passion for the moving image and set him on the path to directing the most successful Icelandic film in history.

“I started making shorts in college with friends. I never went to formal film school. I just started making music videos for local bands and some TV shows. Did some pilots that the TV stations bought. Documentary stuff. It wasn’t until 1999 that I did my first feature film called Fiasco. Trial and error. One thing led to another.” he says.

Iceland’s population is smaller than most UK cities making it easier for an aspiring filmmaker to recruit volunteers willing to join the crew or be extras.

“One of the positive things about living in Iceland is that almost everything is within reach so if you want to do something you can get to people to help you to do it. We don’t have that kind of big regulation and rule thing.”

Iceland’s home-grown film and TV industry may be small but it has had several notable successes on the international arena including Jar City and Noi the Albino. In recent years the country has provided locations for Game of Thrones, Interstellar, and Thor: The Dark World.

When Ragnar began his career opportunities for exporting Icelandic films and TV series to English speaking territories were limited. Aside from festival screenings, the marketplace had yet to take notice of the routinely high quality product coming out of Nordic territories. We asked him how difficult it was to get a meeting with network executives.

“For a young filmmaker it’s quite easy to get a meeting with the programme managers at TV stations. When I started, all my first stuff was shown on Channel 2 which was the new station. The first privately owned station. National broadcasting was kind of a dinosaur in those days.”

In comparison to the UK and USA, television is a relatively young medium in Iceland. The first state owned station commenced transmissions in 1966 and had a monopoly of the airwaves up to 1986 when a privately owned network was granted a broadcast licence.

This new station was producing programmes for a younger audience. It was the natural home for Ragnor’s music videos and documentaries.

“In those days they screened it as a filler between programmes. So if you made a video it usually got screened on national TV. It was good to get the exposure. Fairly quickly people know your name, who you are, and what you’ve done.”

“We don’t have this structure you have in the UK where you have to work your way up. We don’t have that in Iceland. I’ve never from day one in ’94, done anything else besides directing or writing. I’ve never worked on a production as something else. I just started making my stuff and kept on doing it. Most people do it that way. Of course there are exceptions but if you decide to become a director you just become one, Everything is within reach. If you have a minimum amount of talent and some determination you can make stuff.”

“Most of my friends that are directors or writers, a lot of them went to film school which is the proper way to do things. That’s what you do, you go away and study abroad. We didn’t have film school in Iceland then. We don’t have a proper university degree film school today, we just have this college based thing.”

We asked Ragnor if not attending film school was beneficial to his career. Did he feel he had found a cinematic voice  that might otherwise have been quashed by exposure to rules laid down by lecturers?

“Some people have strong enough vision of things and can withstand the pressure of film school and things imposed. My film school was one VHS rental store in downtown Reykjavik. They had obscure and international stuff. I went there everyday for a few years and got VHS tapes to watch.”

“I saw the early works of John Cassavetes. That had a had a huge impact on me. I think my biggest influence is Mike Leigh. When I saw Naked I got everything I could find that he had made. He was, for me, really intriguing because he was focusing on normal people in normal everyday life.”

In the next part of this interview Ragnor talks about creating cult smash The Night Shift, revealing how the series was cast and pitched to the network.

The Night Shift can be ordered from Shop Icelandic:

Næturvaktin – The Night Shift (DVD)

Glasgow Confidential…an evening with James Ellroy

The Mad Dog of crime writing came to Scotland and Stirling’s Nordic Noir group went to see the master in action.

Nordic Noir

The dark , wet Glasgow evening started with a well rehearsed foul-mouthed tirade, encouraging gesture and mention of an independent Scotland. Ellroy read from Perfidia, his new book, first in the prequel quartet to his already established LA quartet. The prologue and part of chapter two to be precise. His reading was eloquent and powerful as he addressed the full house at the Mitchell Theatre.

wpid-img_20141107_150139.jpgEllroy in Glasgowwpid-dsc_0153.jpg

This was followed by an interview, feet up on the table, obviously enjoying the evening . There was a lot of book character based chat and Ellroy spoke in detail about characters whose heads he had been inside and those he hadn’t. He spoke about the research for his new books. In this case he had hired  a researcher to map out exactly what had happened in December 1941 in LA so that he could place his fictional characters precisely  in that time.  He later…

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Blu-ray Review: Gomorrah – The Complete Season One

Roberto Saviano’s best-selling exposé of the Neapolitan Mafia is brought to the small screen in an adaptation that takes on Breaking Bad and The Wire for the title of TV’s most brutal show and wins by several knockouts.

First published in 2006, Saviano’s account of a criminal syndicate blew the whistle on a whole raft of nefarious practices that the mob wanted to remain secret. Forced to flee after receiving death threats from the Mafia, he now lives in an undisclosed location.

A feature film adaptation was released in 2008. Critically acclaimed, it was nominated for the Palme d’Or and a Golden Globe and won the Grand Prix at Cannes. Streamlining the material to fit the movie’s running time, Saviano knew that he had enough stories left over for TV series.

Presented with the unique opportunity of translating this wealth of unused accounts of life within a criminal organization, the screenwriters took two years to craft final drafts of the scripts that were true to the source material and had the potential to create visually compelling and emotionally potent television. Cameras started rolling once the entire creative team realized they had successfully captured the spirit of Saviano’s book without compromising the integrity of his journalism.

Complex, gritty and intense, Gomorrah’s authenticity sets this series apart from any other gangster drama on television. Sourced from first hand observations of criminal practices and the internal machinations of a Mafia-style organisation, the show offers a unique window into life within the mob. All incidents on screen are based on real life occurrences but some dramatic licence has been applied to compress timelines or combine events.

Resolute in their commitment to accuracy, the director and producers were determined to shoot the series in and around the Naples suburb Scampia. Substituting a district nearer to any of the major Rome film studios may have lowered production costs but it would have been a betrayal of the audience’s trust, shattering any pretence of a commitment to conveying a sense of reality.

More than a dramatic backdrop, the crime ridden district is a core character in the series. A setting from which a life free of Mob influence is impossible. Socially and economically the area is dependent upon the proceeds of illegality. High unemployment, limited access to educational opportunities, availability of drugs, and a crumbling infrastructure has allowed the Camorra to flourish. Demonstrating the regional government’s ineptness in dealing with the tide of lawlessness, local policing did not attempt to establish a presence in the area until 1987 when the first police station was opened.

Gomorrah brings to life the rise and fall of a Camorra syndicate with the passion and magnitude of a Greek tragedy, albeit a particularly bloody one. The series zooms in on the intricacies of day-to-day life within the clan revealing it to be a never-ending succession of power struggles and betrayals. From foot soldier to Mob boss, each level of the hierarchy is captured with fly on the wall levels of realism.

Far removed from The Sopranos and Lilyhammer, compelling pages of undercover journalism have been distilled with great care into the best new series of 2014. Peeling away false glamour, the expansive narrative explodes Hollywood myths about the Mafia and delivers an authoritative account of Italy’s criminal underworld. A world where business deals may settled by a game of Russian Roulette, footsoldiers are dispatched on an errand never quite knowing if they are being sent to their death, and war may erupt with a neighbouring gang without warning.

Gomorrah – The Complete Season One can be ordered from Amazon:

DVD Review: The Code

Hacking into BBC Four, and onto DVD, Australian techno-conspiracy thriller The Code proves Europe doesn’t have a monopoly on Noir.

Slick and compelling, a six hour drama filled with interweaving strands of subterfuge and murky morality. The spectacular unspoilt landscape of Australia’s outback is contrasted with grubby dealings in the corridors of power in a series that has more in common with Hostages and Edge of Darkness than Neighbours or Home and Away.


Series creator, and script writer, Shelley Birse has been working in Australian drama for twenty years. She spent time in Israel during the Arab Spring and was aware of the role played by pro-democracy hacktivists in bypassing online protocols to access suppressed information and disseminate video files and documents.

Recipient of a grant from Scribe, a project partly backed by Screen Australia to foster new talent. The financing gave Birse space to develop The Code without the pressure of immediate deadlines. With additional time to research and write the series she sculpted a suspense filled drama that mined ever present fears of data protection in the Wikileaks era and the dirty tricks governmental agencies will employ to shut down leaks.

Before the first episode had aired the series had won awards and been pre-sold to several territories, including America and Canada. In Australia its première trounced main rival, Big Brother, in the ratings and landed a place inside the week’s top ten most watch programmes.

Alex Wisham (Lucy Lawless of Xena, and Battlestar Galactica) is a teacher in remote New South Wales township, Lindara. One night she notices that her truck has been “borrowed” by Clarence, a young boy she has been looking after.

Forced to meet surreptitiously because of his girlfriend’s dissaproving parents, Clarence has taken the vehicle without permission. An evening joyriding around the surrounding area ends in tragedy for this young couple when a tanker collides with the truck.


Journalist Ned Banks (Dan Spielman) is fed a story by a member of the government’s press team about a cabinet minster’s extramarital relationship. In the bundle of incriminating evidence is a piece of paper with Lindara scrawled on it. Unsure how this connects to the governmental matter he’s reporting, Ned decides to dig deeper and soon finds himself investigating why the scene of a fatal car crash has been tampered with.

The corpse of Clarence’s girlfriend has been removed from the vehicle and the only tangible proof she was in the truck is a mobile phone with a corrupted video file. Curious about the footage’s Ned allows his hacker brother Jesse (Ashley Zuckerman) to attempt a repair of the damaged content.

Poor quality footage recovered from the phone documents the horror of the collision and its aftermath. A shaky frame contains a number plate. Jesse tracks the vehicle to bio-tech company but his attempt to breach their online security portals triggers an investigation by a cyber crime unit.

Operating on the mild end of the autistic spectrum, Jesse is living under parole conditions and is banned from using WiFi, internet connected mobile phones, or consorting with other hackers. Fellow computer whizz Hani (Adele Perovic) offers to assist when the Bio-Tech company tries to infect Jesse’s computer with Malware. Accepting her offer means he runs the risk of being sent to prison.

Stunning cinematography that practically begs the viewer to board a plane, subtle and smart screenwriting completed by first rate acting makes this a show to remember and enjoy all over again on DVD.

The Code is a sophisticated crime series packed with moments of high-wire tension that signals the emergence of a new form of Noir. The Australian film industry has justly been recognised for its consistently high quality productions since the release of Picnic at Hanging Rock. Now is the time to start treating the country’s TV with similar levels of respect. If more shows are produced to this standard, not getting a UK release would be criminal.

The Code can be ordered from Amazon: