CASE: Pétur Jónsson Interviewed

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Composer of the score for intense Icelandic drama Case talks about his working methods, commitment to storytelling, and what makes a great scene.

Pétur Jónsson’s soundtrack for Case is a haunting and absorbing recording underpinning a harrowing screen drama. Contemplative and moody cues unfurl and follow the gradual reveal of the series.
Standing alone from the show, a soundtrack album released by Anthemico Records is a satisfyingly dramatic listen filled with dark ambience and chillingly effective flits from melancholy to brooding tension. The subtle and potent soundscape paints a mood picture that matches the series’ tone and works on its own as an arresting album.
Composer Pétur Jónsson studied filmmaking in Italy and returned to Iceland where he set up his own production company and directed hundreds of commercials. He has studied music since the age of 10 and was playing professionally in bands at 17. Returning to his creative roots, he set up the music production company Medialux and now composes music for TV series, film trailers, and commercials.
Pétur Jónsson’s recording studio is situated in the old fish-packing district of Reykjavik. An impressive array of vintage guitars hang on the wall and a ZX Spectrum sits on top of a valve amplifier. A remarkable selection of cutting-edge studio technology that would make audio nerds tremble with excitement is housed in the studio. From his studio window, Pétur is able to gaze upon the beauty of Reykjavik’s coastline.
In this hub of sonic creativity Pétur talked about writing the soundtrack for Case, contributions composers make to the art of storytelling, and how he has reminded the industry of a long-forgotten approach to scoring drama.

*Spoiler warning*

Normally composers are employed quite late in the production process. From a producer’s perspective, music is usually an afterthought. With you, it was the reverse. You were one of the first to be engaged in this production? You composed your score before a single scene had been shot. Is this how you always work?

‘I haven’t been doing soundtracks for a very long time because I was a filmmaker. This comes from me being a filmmaker as well, I think that music should be an integral part of the storytelling of the weave of the series from the beginning. I wasn’t the first one to do it here because Ólafur Arnalds had done it before with Baldvin on Life in a Fishbowl. I saw an interview with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross because of their Oscar-winning soundtrack for The Social Network. They described their method of working. They would get a script and compose lots and lots of music and hand it over to the production. At the end of the day when they finished everything, they had already composed maybe 70 or 80 per-cent of the soundtrack. This helps everyone during the process. I know as a filmmaker that working on the music that you are going to be using, instead of using temp music and then giving it to a composer… We have this problem in soundtracking which is that the demo of the temp music that the director or the producer start really loving and you have to do a version of that to make the edit work. That’s not always what you in mind for that scene or it doesn’t relate properly to the sound world you had imagined for the score. I know this because I’ve been doing advertising music for so long. Usually what happens there is somebody comes in, “we want the feeling of this song but it can’t be that song”, so you have to compose something. It’s a tiresome approach. We’re emotion builders. That’s what we do. The emotion if you read it from the script correctly and of course I worked with closely Baldvin right at the start… The story is that he comes to me and says “I have this great script and I want you to write music for the series.” I hadn’t been doing a lot of soundtrack work but we had talked about it. I was going to move into it. What we wound up doing is I composed a five-minute piece that contained lots of emotions that I knew were going to be relevant to what we were going to be doing in the series. A five-minute thing that included a lot of stuff that we would later use for a presentation for the producers. He would make a mood board with images and how he would shoot it and then they would play the music to it and everybody was just sold on that mood. We got a green light to start work.’

‘For me, the philosophical or work side of this is very important. Everybody pays lip service to how important music is to film but when it comes to having the time to doing it properly or the budget, and so on, it’s usually, like you say, an afterthought. You’re rushed because everything else is running late so you have limited time to give to the series. I just felt that this was the wrong way, at least for me, to work and apart from wanting to be one of the guys helping out telling the story. Music is a great part of the storytelling in any good film.’

‘It played out really well because what happened is Baldvin would have cues that he would let the actors listen to on set before they were shooting the scene. They were setting the mood for what it is going to be and then they shoot that scene. They edit the scene on the music. Everything just fits. It saves a lot of trouble. I would compose scenes for the main characters. I have a distinguished theme for every one of them and then I mix them together. We played a little game as well, if you see the lawyer he has a very specific sound. He has a deep piano. That is his thing. We would incorporate that in scenes where you didn’t know who did it. We would plant it there, of course, more for ourselves than the listener. I doubt there are many people who would react to it. As part of the storytelling, you could think OK it might be him. It’s just one subliminal thing that might make you think he did something that he maybe didn’t do. We played a lot with these things. There is a structure of how we spot the whole thing, that it’s not just to spot the scene but also to play a little bit with this. This is another thing that I got inspired to do after I saw my friend Ólafur Arnalds do that on Broadchurch, the first series. We’re a little bit like this, if you see someone doing a smart thing you want to do it yourself.’

‘Instead of being stressful and demanding, before I went on vacation on that year when they shooting I had composed what wound up to be around eighty per cent of the soundtrack in big themes. Of course, it means there’s a lot of work spotting the episodes because you really have to make everything fit. We wrote new music to some cues. I was getting dailies and edited scenes every day. There were a couple of scenes where I looked at them and said OK, we have to do a specific cue for that and I would just write it and send it. They would have the time while shooting to say OK, this is a perfect fit or could we do a little more like this and so on. We could bounce these things between us while shooting and editing. The editor, who used to work with me when I was doing filmmaking, and the mixing engineer were all good friends so there’s an understanding there and a certain trust. I would actually send the editor stems of the music so he would have percussion on a separate track and so on. If a cue was too big or he didn’t need the percussion he would just mute that and I would get that back and if I agreed to it I would say that’s a good call. He had the liberty to play with the tracks. They loved editing on the score. It was very unusual for them as well. I suspect that anyone involved, including the production because they never had to wait a single moment for a cue or for music, it made total sense to everybody involved.’

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Might it be fair to say that with regards that your working methods on Case, you were painting with sound?

‘Yeah, it’s fair. We like to think of ourselves when we do soundtracks that we are just part of the story, part of painting the whole picture. A great scene is where everything really comes together and it becomes bigger than the sum of its parts. Working with Baldvin was great because when we work together there is no ego involved. It’s just two guys sitting down trying to make of the stuff we have in front of us. There were no fights. Actually, it was very nice. The spotting sessions were just like, “Oh that’s great, you did that” and so on and not because he didn’t know what he wanted. He knows exactly when he doesn’t like the thing and he will tell you. That’s exactly how it should work.’

The Icelandic film community is very small. Because everyone knows every everyone you’ve already got a strong relationship when the production process starts. You are already familiar with each person’s working methods, creative strengths and passions. Baldvin knew what you would bring to the project and you knew what he would bring to the project. As I said previously, music traditionally is an afterthought. Because you were brought in so early do you think that makes you a co-author along with the actors, director, writers and other creative professionals?

‘I don’t know if it feels like that. It goes to the storytelling thing. Author or not.., I haven’t thought of it exactly that way but I understand the question. At least you become a part of setting the mood and telling the story. I would hazard to say a rather important part of it and I think everybody agrees on that. We know when it’s not good, we know when it doesn’t fit, we see scenes that don’t work because of the music and some pass you by because they never made an emotional impact. I think, in a way, I’m one of the guys telling you the story, absolutely. I don’t know if that makes me an author. Part of the storytelling weave I would actually say, absolutely.’

It’s an emotional story. Your soundtrack enhances the emotion. It’s a contemplative, melancholy score. You don’t go into melodrama. You know when not to play a note.

‘This is very important thing for me, personally. If I give you a little background. Ten years ago I was directing commercials. I had my own film production company. I really, really felt that I wanted to go back into music so I started doing what I knew I could do which was making music for commercials because I knew everybody there so I just called them and said listen I’m not directing to be doing commercials for you anymore, I’m going to be doing music. The main objective was always long-term was always to make soundtracks because that’s what I’ve always had a huge passion for.’

‘I have the utmost respect for composers who have exactly that ability to not stuff music everywhere, especially where it’s not needed. We had a plan for the series that we would gradually increase the amount and volume of music as we went along. If you see a series that’s not really well done you’ll notice that people tend to just cram music in everywhere to tell people how they should be feeling. I really want to avoid that. I want to enhance the feel of the scene without telling you that now should suspect that this guy did something. That’s not what I consider… I can name you a great example and I don’t know how much this has been noticed but one of the first things I noticed when watching Breaking Bad was how extremely good they were at not having music where it wasn’t needed. You see two guys in the middle of the desert go out of their car and there is this huge scenery in front of them and the first thing you think is enter the big cue but it isn’t there and they start talking and it’s interesting and nobody is telling you what to feel about what they are saying so you have to get more involved, There is is nothing helping you along telling you how to feel. I don’t think that’s what we should be doing. We should be enhancing the mood of the scenes. This is very much my philosophy when it comes to scoring. Baldvin is good with that as well. This I knew because I was there when they were doing the soundtrack for Life in a Fishbowl. There’s a very emotional scene there which Ólafur wrote a great great cue to. It was absolutely beautiful and they both decided that the scene was better without it, that it was stronger and people would get more involved. It was completely the right decision. It’s killing your darlings, it’s throwing away stuff. There were scenes here where I had written music that I liked but the scene would actually be stronger without it and the whole thing of obviously working with the mixing engineer I just told him, “listen when we start there are all these people bringing bad news. Your daughter’s dead and so on. We don’t want the music to be noticed. It’s going to be there but we don’t want it to be noticed. It’s just a small minimal, almost subliminal thing. As we go on we’re going to write bigger cues we’re going to have louder cues and so on.” This worked. Baldvin has a very good sense of when music is needed and when it is not. We were actually in agreement when we threw away cues that I had written cues for certain scenes. There was no fight. This scene lives better without music or we would say, “the cue fits there but when you mix it, mix it so you almost can’t hear it and keep it there.”’

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You are prepared to sacrifice a piece of music if the work is enhanced…

‘Absolutely, absolutely. I think that’s the important thing. Having been in filmmaking myself for all these years, because, I bring that culture to the table as well, how we do something at the end of the day doesn’t matter. It’s always the final product that we release. So if we all work wholeheartedly at doing our best to make that product as good as we possibly can with all the limitations that people obviously have that’s the big goal. This also comes down to what I said before about ego, you should never bring it. You don’t bring that to the table. If you take a creative fight because you disagree with somebody bring good arguments for why you think it’s going to be better with the cue in because it’s going to make the scene better. If that’s not your argument you don’t have one. It’s all about the final product and the emotional impact it’s going to have on the audience.’

Did your time as a filmmaker give you a discipline that you now employ as a musician? Filmmaking is very expensive. Now you are aware of not wasting studio time..

‘Yes and No. What it gave to me and the culture I bring from there is that I used to edit a lot which is always helpful. So I know what’s going to please the editor and what’s going to make the edit work for him he’s going to need his rises in music. He’s going to need his endings and his fade outs so I know exactly what he needs to make the scene work. This is helpful when it comes to the money side and to the practical things of making stuff on a budget which this obviously was, it was not a big budget project, I just didn’t care. I took this on. This was my first drama series that I scored and I just wanted to do a good job. So if I spend more time, which I definitely did, because I don’t like rushing these things, there are days you sit in your studio and just nothing comes and that’s something we all have to face. We can do the technical stuff then and it’s great it’s a great time when you’re not feeling creative with nothing comes to you to sit down and do the technical things or spotting things and you know making stems and all that is perfect. No problem, but the actual writing comes to you and then you have to be ready and throw away whatever you’re doing, finish that to a place where happy that you left the emotion there and you can come back to it when you’re feeling a little bit more technical again. So I think having the time was the big luxury for me and I wouldn’t have done it any other way. If you look at great collaborations between composers and filmmakers, you will find that many of them have this luxury. You’ll find that Hans Zimmer works with Nolan for two years on a film and they work like this together. Another great duo that I admire, especially after having seen Arrival, is Jóhann Jóhannsson and Denis Villeneuve which I think are doing something really, really great together. I think it comes from this, there’s the luxury of writing bad cues which we’re all going to do. Doesn’t matter how good we think we are, we’re always going to do something that’s not good enough. To be able to have the luxury of writing and composing when you feel like it is something special and I think that it pays off. It really does. It was a strange process also because when I was doing the most dramatic stuff, like I told you earlier, I was working in the summer. Sun is out, people are having ice cream and there I am doing the most difficult of the cues. In the middle of everything, I was doing commercials as well, you know cues, because I can never stop completely. So I would go from a really dramatic cue to a happy jingle for an ad and that’s more difficult than it sounds like because I remember one Friday I came home I was just completely emotionally drained and I didn’t understand why. Then I started thinking about the week before where I’ve been doing all this stuff and I saw that I’ve been switching moods more abruptly than a normal person should be because that’s what it means getting involved. If you’re telling the story you have to.’

‘I did a lot of research on making some of the cues and how to make some of the stuff really uncomfortable and there’s this thing a producer said to me when I was eighteen and he said if you want to feel  the right beat for a song walk around the control room and step into the song. So I was walking around here trying to find BPMS that were uncomfortable, that I couldn’t step in. I would work with synthesisers and other instruments to find stuff discordant stuff that would make me feel uncomfortable and it worked so much that once I was finishing off one of the cues I found myself gritting my teeth while I’m mixing because there was an intensity there. I was just like, listen you have to calm down, you wrote this, back off and relax. There are very disturbing scenes in the series and I just wanted to make the music be as disturbing as what you see.’

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It’s disturbing. There’s restraint. The soundtrack is more internal. Walking down here listening to the album again I noticed that it works as a self-contained mood picture. Even without the story I was still experiencing the drama.

‘Well the thing is that all these layers of uncomfortable stuff they are really low and they are layers. I like working with layers and layers of stuff. On top of what I like doing, and I find that I like this in many other composers as well, you find a simple enough repetitive melody,  nothing you have to focus on. It’s just there and when it starts repeating you don’t have to give it any attention because it becomes familiar to you. You have the traditional arrangement with it but underneath there are layers upon layers of more or less disturbing stuff so you can listen to the cue and you can say it’s a pleasant melody is it but there’s something there that evokes or provokes emotion. These layers are where I put a lot of work in. If they are too high or too prominent then you fall into the trap of telling people how they should be feeling so they are on a level that you can barely hear them. Almost subliminal but they are certainly there, for example, I would take two notes on the synthesizer and I would just sign wave basically and I would pitch them away from each other and back again but they would never me. Now this for normal person that listens to music is extremely uncomfortable and you want things to align and to sound right but they never do. But then I would mix that really low but it’s there if I take it away everything becomes very plain.’

When people see the series and hear your soundtrack they’ll be surprised at how many instruments you are playing on it. It’s a very layered recording.

‘There’s lots of stuff going on. This is how I like to work and it’s not everybody’s way and it fit here. The thing I did directly after was a comedy series and that was a difficult switch of gears. I just did completely the opposite. I went really simple. No layers, just in your face. It inherits, in a way, the story which in Case is complicated. It’s multi-layered and I feel that the music should be that as well. It just felt right. Sometimes I philosophize about these things but sometimes I just sit down and do them because they feel right. There’s that aspect as well. Sometimes it’s easier to speak about them after you’ve done them but sometimes when you’re in the middle of things you just do them because they feel right.’

You mentioned going straight on to a comedy series and I noticed on the flight the onboard entertainment system was screening Ligeglad, a comedy series with your name in the credits. How easy or hard is it to suddenly switch gears and find a different voice to bring alive another show?

‘I’ll be completely honest with you, it was very difficult but not because of the mood change but because comedy is so hard to score. I think it’s probably one of the hardest things I’ve taken on. Not saying that it it’s easy to do the whole thing but it comes quite naturally. Solving score for a comedy is so difficult. Difficult because it has everything to do with the comedy timing of the thing. You have to just be on the spot with what’s happening and you can’t fake your way around it. You just have to be there. It just has to work. In a drama if a cue doesn’t work, isn’t great, it still sort of slides by but in comedy it’s a disaster and you are better off without anything.’

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Case is your first drama commission. Will we being seeing your name on more credits?

‘Yeah absolutely, there are already two series that are as good as confirmed. This has been quite a journey because from a young age I was doing music. From when I was ten I was studying music. I was playing bands professionally when I was seventeen and what happened is I went to see a film that changed my life and that film was Le Grande Bleu. Apart from just loving the score, I really wanted to become a filmmaker. I was already doing photography and so on. So I just knew this is the way to go. So I went and did the whole thing, went to film school in Italy came back and immediately started working on commercials which is where I wound up more by accident than anything else. It took me a while to figure out that what I actually liked and was the culmination of everything that I knew and wanted to do would be in soundtrack. This is sort of a revelation that came to me maybe five years ago that this is what I wanted to go but I didn’t want to do it unless I was working with right people and working on the right project. I said no to a couple of quite decent commissions because the scripts didn’t feel right to me, I’m fairly critical of that, or if the people weren’t somebody I could see myself having a beautiful working relationship with it because it’s kind of a marriage when you do these things. You really have to get along. I like to work with people that I like on a personal level. I tend to not work with people even if they’re creative geniuses if I can’t find a resonance, if I can’t find some common ground. This is Baldvin’s way of working as well. He really likes to use the same people. He wants to have relationships that are not too complex and not too difficult because it’s enough like he did that year he was doing his episode of Trapped. he was helming nine episodes of this on the back of the film, and preparing another one. You don’t want to have to work with difficult people in these very delicate and intimate moments that are putting music to edits and the whole editing process and everything. These are like open wounds when you’re doing this. To get somebody in walking in and criticizing stuff you haven’t finished doing that is not the final result. It’s not that we can’t hear stuff said about our.., I worked in advertising for twenty years, I’ve heard everything. I have a very strong shell but it’s an intimate process so you want it to be pleasant. You want to be with people that understand and respect you. I think it’s about both professional and personal respect. So this for me has always been very important especially when you take on a big project like this that’s very time-consuming. I just want to feel that I’m in sync with you people, not just another job where you get paid and you do the stuff that the client wants to do. I actually get more money for doing that in commercials and so when I pick these projects I go for this. This is important to me, the story that we have to tell, the people that are telling you. That’s that’s what I pick them for.’

You are quite fortune that you were able to get that working relationship. You wouldn’t get it if you were a musician for hire in Hollywood. As the Icelandic filmmaking community opens up more to the rest of the world, this is happening, right now, might it be harder to find directors with whom you can bond on a personal and creative level?

‘No, I don’t think so. Firstly, I don’t have a lot of problem bonding with people. I’m quite open and easy going. I find that very many of us have more things in common than you would suspect. Of course, different characters and all that but that’s not the thing, the thing is to focus on the quality of the stuff. You can feel if a person has a passion for a thing or if he’s doing it because he’s getting paid. I’d every day work with a guy who was a passion for it. That’s when you have that motivation. Even if it then doesn’t work because lots of creative work you start with the greatest intentions of all the passion in the world and the final product is perfect, isn’t great. I’m fine with that. I think in the filmmaking process, a film or a TV series is never going to get any better than its weakest link. There is no better way to describe that than with that old cliche. So it has to do with the people who are driven to find and weed out the weakest links and to work getting the best from everybody. Baldvin on set and as well as in post-production he’s all about making people comfortable so they can enhance and great things to his work which I find also having worked in his profession to be the right mindset for me. It doesn’t work for everybody. You will always find that somebody who walks in a set and wants people to be afraid of him because he’s the boss or controls. It doesn’t make sense to me because it’s always a collaboration. You are never going to do a TV series by yourself so get along with the people that you working with. Have the people skills to read people, you know what they want and what you can do and also what you can add to them to the thing. I find that when people have really strong ideas about they want what they want from actors and music they don’t allow happy accidents. Happy accidents are the best part of filmmaking. They are so undervalued. If you draw everything up, tell the composer exactly how you want to cue, give him a reference this is how to sound like and the editor is going to work on this cue by Hans Zimmer so you have to do that kind of thing there is no space for people to shine on the final product. Baldvin is a very smart young man and knows that if he gets people to do this the one who is going to look good is him. This is very important. He’s going to get the credit for people doing something unexpected that makes all of all of a sudden makes his stuff a lot better. This is the way to go as well, to be able to experiment which takes time and effort and focus and say no that didn’t work let’s try something else and he’s really up for it. I’ll name you an example, we didn’t know what we were going to do about a theme song because there is no intro opening so I come back from a very difficult funeral, quite distraught actually, I sit down and I write a piece of music and it’s really, really sad because that’s how I was feeling and I get this idea that OK what if instead of going out with a bang like all these series  and do the classical thing, we would actually write a funeral song for Lara because at the end of the day the whole thing about the series starts with her death. I wrote that song or finished producing it. Got Sigríður to sing it as well and I just proposed it. Said “does it feel right to you?” He was just like, “that’s great.” What he didn’t tell me was that he would actually write it into the script. Here’s another thing, the girl who sings an acapella version of that in Lara’s funeral, that would have never happened if we weren’t doing the score before the shooting. It would have never happened. So instead of that being an afterthought he integrated into the story.’

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Watching the series and listening to the soundtrack I wondered if that end theme had deliberately been composed to be used in that episode. You’ve just explained that it was happy accident.

‘Absolutely. I just felt that it would actually be something a little bit different from the standard way you know you end on a happy or exciting note, quite rhythmic and the end titles and so on. People stand up go to the toilet or whatever. Instead, I wanted to do something really, really beautiful that would just be a funeral Psalm for Lara. I didn’t know if they were going to buy it at all as a thing. Took him one listen to say “this is great, this is the end song, great, that’s it.”’

The series is now on Netflix in the US and several other territories. It’s coming to the UK in 2017. When articles start appearing in newspapers and magazines and people find learn about your working methods do you anticipate that you may influence other European shows? They may start working this way.

‘Oh, I hope so. It’s not an original idea but I really would like to preach this as much as possible. If music is that important as the producer will obviously that say it is then why not give the respect of being part of the storytelling. I think is very important and I preach this to everybody. If you have the luxury of being able to hire a composer from day one that can actually bring his attention to your work at that stage because that wasn’t a given either. On the projects that I’m working on now this is my demand. Bring me in from the beginning because I think I can do a better job. It’s not like I’m charging extra for it. It’s just a way of me being able to do this both with other work so I don’t sit down in a hat with a quill and start writing music for three weeks and then come and panic and do the string sessions. I do this as we move along. The fact that it’s right for me doesn’t mean it’s right for everybody. Some of the greatest composers you could ever think of they don’t work like this. They come in and they write the score to an edit and then they go on record that score and out comes a beautiful score that works. It’s not right for everybody but the possibility of it being right I think is quite big. I learned from my years in filmmaking to have a huge respect for the editing process where it all comes to life and where it all starts working or not working. Giving those people real stuff to work with.., If you would propose to an editor we’re going to do a fight scene but just use fight material from other films and make it all work and then we’ll just insert the right material he would tell you you’re crazy but basically you’re asking an editor to do that with music. Use somebody else’s music, use somebody else’s mood instead of having to something that’s bespoke for the scene he’s working. I think there’s a huge difference.’

The way you are working is the way TV used to work. The industry has just forgotten. When drama was live the soundtrack was composed before the rehearsals started. Actors would rehearse to it and they’d learn the scene timings by the score. You are bringing that back.

‘I’d be happy to bring that back. Just to be honest, as this was my first drama series. I didn’t have full confidence so time would help me. I would actually sit down and make a cue and make it work and I would feel OK this can be done. What happens is well for the production side, they get cues sent in and they have the luxury then of saying we don’t like the direction this is taking. Doing it in the last minutes of post-production when you’re on a deadline and delivering, I know too many examples of producers saying “it’s too late to fix it. We have to ship it like this.” Why should they have to? They don’t have to is the answer. They can hire the composer early on. They can feel the direction of the thing all the time while they’re editing. They can make adjustments to mood and  everything and that’s quite an important thing. I think it’s just like you said, it became this way of working and this is how it’s done and this is how we tell new producers stuff is done but does it have to be like that? I don’t think so.’

Composers I know have given me horror stories of producers telling them that here is your dubbing day, you’ve X amount of hours and that’s all the time you’ve got.

‘Your three-hour union session.’

By re-introducing this working method you’ve maintained the integrity of the project. You’ve been able to make adjustments where needed. So what is your proudest moments with regards composing the soundtrack for Case?

‘Ah, good question. I don’t know really. There are scenes that I felt I was really happy about seeing together with my music. I think one of the cues that I like the most is the bathtub cue. There’s a young girl in the bathtub. I did something I’ve never done before , slowing down and pitch- bending an upright piano which is not usually the thing you do. That scene just popped up on the server and I read it and I just felt that as a standalone thing it just worked and then was a part of the whole thing it worked really well for me. Other than that it’s just, to be honest. it’s work for us until we get other people’s reaction on what we do. There are ,of course, always moments where you feel that OK, this felt right and then there are, of course, the more nagging moments where you feel I should have done this differently or should have less of that and less of the other. That’s never going to stop. That’s what we every creative person takes with them. If you look at something you did four years ago the first thing  you can say is that I should have done this differently which is a curse and a blessing because it moves us on our way to being better at what we do. There are times when you can sit down and say OK this was good. This actually works.’

Thanks to Pétur Jónsson, Medialux Music Productions, and Anthemico Records.

Pétur Jónsson’s soundtrack is available to buy from Amazon.

Here’s a selection of tracks from the soundtrack:

Follow the official Case Facebook page.


CASE: Magnús Jónsson Interviewed

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From The Court to Case: Star of dark drama on playing a tortured character, his acting technique, and the future of Icelandic TV.

An intense ride into the darker recesses of the human soul, Case is inspired by a real-life investigation. The latest Nordic import is a watershed moment which will transform the genre. The bleakest Noir series to reach our screens, it is not for the faint-hearted.

Set to become Nordic Noir’s most critically acclaimed drama yet, Case is a spin-off from Icelandic series The Court. The original series focussed on a trio of lawyers as they brought human traffickers, murderers, financial scammers, and leaders of religious cults to justice. Uncovering Reykjavik’s criminal underbelly in the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis, The Court was a timely and energetic series that made history as Icelandic TV’s first home-grown legal drama.

The Court‘s maverick lawyer Logi was a Promethean figure who famously never lost a case in his entire career. Moving away from Law & Court Inc’s city centre’s offices, The Court‘s spin-off series Case is set several years after the original. No longer Reykjavik’s top lawyer, Logi is now a booze-soaked broken man. His reputation in tatters, the investigation into an apparent suicide offers Logi a slim opportunity for redemption. Powerful forces conspire to conceal the truth and Logi is faced with the prospect of perpetual damnation.

Playing Logi since 2009, Magnús Jónsson is one of Iceland’s most accomplished actors. A renaissance man, he has recently directed his first feature film, is preparing to hold an exhibition of his paintings, and has recorded an album of his own compositions.

In a Reykjavik coffee shop Magnús Jónsson talked about playing Logi once again, his stage career, and the future of Icelandic film and TV.

*Spoiler warning*

When you were told you were going to play Logi again did you know he was going to be in a very different, very dark place?

‘Yeah, quite early. The first script was totally there. It changed a little bit after Baldvin Z came in and decided to do it. So yeah, I was quite aware in the beginning that it was going to be a totally different story and something had happened. We played with it that it’s like five, six, maybe seven years since the last one so we could have a fresher start with this new Logi as you see him in Case. He’s totally different and it evolves throughout the series that something happened. There’s still some kind of connection between him and Brynhildur. We learn pretty soon that he fucked up everything they had together and Benedikt, the older gentlemen at the office, he took her on because Logi fucked everything up and Logi was just on a streak of hate and vengeance. We kind of built up this backstory of what had actually happened. ‘

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When you joined the project Baldvin Z wrote a mini story of what happened in those lost years. Did he tell you about it?

‘He told me a little bit about it. He told me enough because it’s good to have like some kind of imagination of how to go this dark. My technique, the older technique that I used for The Court, was totally different because he was a winner. He was a success. He was the best in the game. The technique that I have to try to work with to deal with this human tragedy that he is, he’s got this old murder at his back. He’s confused. Sometimes remembers it. Sometimes he doesn’t, like in The Court, but then it reveals in a different way then really I thought it was. So that story in itself is kind of complicated from this new approach. We kind of built up this sequence. He wrote this backstory, told me about it and I instantly related because of this five, six years that have passed.’

I noticed the difference in techniques in your performance between the original series and Case. In The Court he was a triumphant character and you physically dominate the scene. This time he’s a broken man and you’re acting a lot more with your eyes. You are giving the sense of a man who is physically crushed and can only communicate with the world is through his eyes.

‘I have a new technique as an actor. I have developed, as well, and I have the baggage of those two series behind me. It was really challenging to go into these deep, dark alleys with this character and be him instead of playing him. I think that’s a bit of a difference between The Court and Case, I was playing a more extrovert character but now I’m more introvert and more broken inside and the best way to perform it is through eyes.’

You’ve got a new creative team on board. It’s shot in a very different way. It’s more cinematic. Was it hard to get used to this fresh approach?

‘Of course, they are just different types of technique. We were more focusing on style in the first series so a lot of time went into just styling it or fitting the frames, fitting the surroundings. Now it was more lose. Totally different directors as well. They have totally different approaches of directing. For instance, Baldi he was very strict on working the script to the bones so I learnt three versions of the script before we came on set. They were all different. I had to learn everything basically before we came on set because there’s no extra time because this is such a roller coaster ride for this big role. Because of these changes, there was a lot of rehearsals. It kind of happened in that way because when we were shooting it we threw it all away.. So just so it was easier to just improvise the scenes because it was so alive in me. It wasn’t that strict to the script as it was in the first two series of The Court. They were very scripted, they were very produced in that sense, Now we were more lose. We would just get everything down. Throw it away, throw it away. Nobody says it like this. This isn’t Icelandic language. We never speak like this. Just like throw it, throw it. We were killing the babies just like that. It gave you the freedom of being instead of acting. It was just there. It was a tough character to play for the three months of shooting.’

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Logi is a tortured character. He’s in a dark place at the start of the series and falls into a personal hell as it continues. How difficult was it at the end of the shoot to leave the character behind and go back to your friends and family?

‘It was quite hard basically because I’m such a, in a way, method actor so I was this character all the time. My family, they had to live with this guy and the mood swings that I was having just to keep him alive. In Court, for instance, that’s like an extreme character in a different way from the other one. I’m used to playing dark characters. In my career, I always get the murderer. I get the criminal. I get the dark lord or whatever. In a way, it was very suitable for my energy to feed on these forces.’

Logi is an alcoholic suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. As a method actor did you research these conditions?

‘My method is a mixture of Michael Chekhov technique and method. I actually have a school in Iceland with Þorsteinn Bachmann who is another actor. We have had this school for six years. I didn’t have this school and this technique when I was doing the first series. Now with this new technique, it’s easy to go into these dark forces without really affecting what I have lived or if I’m this dark character. I never have to relate to my dark sides. I just have to use my imagination and go from there. So in a way, when I shaved the beard off after the last scene it took me two or three hours to get back.’

When I interviewed Baldvin Z he said that on the last day of shooting just before the wrap party you shaved the beard off and left the character behind.

‘Nobody knew me at the wrap party. Then I had my happy face. In Europe or America, you always have a trailer. You have your place to figure out your technique and work your energies, In Iceland, we are always like in the same bus. Everybody is there so it can be difficult to hold this in before because then “action” and you have to be on your toes. In that sense, this technique is very helpful of getting back and holding in these forces. A big difference as well, which I like very much in this series, Case, is that we kind of shot it in chronological order. The other one was shot so we took all the office scenes in all the episodes two weeks. So it was two weeks ago we were coming in this door and after two weeks you were coming out of it. Now it was more fluent so you were kind of having the throughline of theatre in this one. You kind of went through the process as one through line instead of lots of chop-offs. That was really helpful for staying in character and staying in the mood of the thing and these nuances and conflicts that happen during the play.’

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Pétur Jónsson composed the soundtrack before the start of physical production and it was played to all the actors to help you get into the mood of the drama.

‘Really, really helpful. I really like it when filmmaking is combining all these aspects. It’s like one big thing happening. It’s not like you come and deliver and then you go away. You are all contributing. I had Pétur’s music as well while I was getting into character and getting into the scenes. Of course, these were just flavours that he was producing. It was really helpful to get it before otherwise he would have to layer it afterwards but now we were like ah, yeah, yeah, we know how it is. Baldvin made a mood video as well so you could instantly get into the mood of what going to happen. That was really helpful.’

In the early days of TV all drama was live. Music was composed prior to production. Actors listened to it during rehearsal and it helped shape their performance.

‘Painters do it. I’m a painter as well so I paint a lot with music. It’s inspiring to put something on the canvas so it’s basically the same.’

Case is not a show that’s been assembled in a cut-and-paste fashion. It’s an authored series. Performances, cinematography, and music combine.

‘It was really helpful because in productions I’ve been in there’s always this distance. The actors don’t really know what they are doing. They don’t really know what the others are doing. Nobody knows really so there’s kind of a weird conflict.’

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Have you taken lessons from Case’s production that you will apply to future projects?

‘Definitely, definitely. I shot my first feature this summer. It’s very independent, very low budget. I had this idea three or four years ago and I was like you got to do this and then it’s like you’ve got to apply for grants. It’s like this production just like kills me but then I found this place in the summertime. It was going to be a summer movie so I found this place in the countryside. When I found it I was like OK fuck it, I’m going to do it. I called up some actor friends of mine and we shot the whole movie in eight days. I’m editing it now. So I took a lot of that out of this. Just like ah yeah do it. All experience give you wind under your wings to go fuck it, yeah do it, let’s make it happen.’

Do you have a release date for your movie?

‘No, no, I’m just in the editing process of it. Probably February, March, maybe. It’s getting along. Could be sooner. I also have another show. I have an exhibition of my paintings here at Gallerí Fold in January so I’m doing these two things now. I’m that kind of an artist. I have to be making music, painting, writing, and now I just did my first feature.’

You’re also an accomplished stage actor. Readers may not know that you played Dr. Frank-N-Furter in an Icelandic production of The Rocky Horror Show.

‘That was a complete sold out show. It was like four or five years ago or something. I kind of go into the theatre with a bang and then I leave with a bang. Theatre life is too possessive for me. I can’t just do theatre. I’ve got to be able to do a lot of other things as well. I did another one in the theatre three years ago and then I haven’t been in the theatre since. I have to be very mobile.’

Might we seen you on stage in London at some point in the future?

‘Might happen, yeah. I’m kind of kicking myself in the butt to just push my acting forward. I have been doing a lot of things. I’ve been getting a lot of fun from both directing and teaching. I really take real pride and joy in teaching the technique that I work on myself. I have this school where I teach this. The actor in me is pushing me.’

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Is the end for Logi or are you going to play him again?

‘I don’t know. It depends on the script, basically. It depends on how this goes. This was supposed to be a spin-off from the original series. The actors never really know what is going to happen. We are the last to know. With this kind of attention there comes pressure on the production side to do more. They could totally write me off if they want to, You never really know. Of course, I would love to go further with this series but it’s never really up to me. It’s kind of good that it’s like that. It’s not in my hands. If they produce a good script, if they want go further, if they want to write me off it’s not really up to me. They are maybe strict to other kind of rules as well. If everybody loves Logi then they would maybe have to write me in.’

Because of the place Logi is in at the end of the series any future seasons would have to be true to that. It can’t be a cheat.

‘Of course. They have a few possibilities. I could go to prison. Can they prove anything? Nobody saw anything. Nobody knows anything. They have a lot of options basically.’

When you started making Case did you know how it was going to end?

‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. I knew that. The first script kind of went there but it was a bit more of a surprise in the first script that I saw, what really happens in the end. They kind of changed it because of TV and drama and suspense and all that. I knew it was going to end very, very up, it could go in any direction. In The Court it was the same. Did she kill me? There were always these question marks in the end because you had to have the audience wanting more.’

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In Iceland people already knew Logi. In Case they see a very different Logi. Were they shocked at this new direction? Did people come up to you in the supermarket and say that they didn’t like what the character was doing now?

‘Of course, for some yeah, yeah. I experienced that, especially for people orientated in law because it was very much a law drama. It ended in The Court, it was Case. Now it was like one case throughout the series. You always have these conservatives wanting things to be as it was. They really liked this arrogant lawyer as he was in The Court but now he’s like broken. He’s more human than he was in the first series. There’s more you can really relate to, his dark sides and arrogance than in Court. Of course, I heard a lot of this. Especially people working in law they were like oh, this guy doesn’t represent how we are. These kind of comments. Case is a new thing, for me, of course we have this backstory and we have these series that happened. We have to look at it with new eyes and we have to figure that something has happened. Five, six, seven years has happened before this. I wasn’t like this a year ago. Then again what Trapped and Case, if you compare those two… Trapped was shown for all Icelanders on RUV, the national TV, but Court and Case were only on Channel 2 which only has, I don’t know, 20,000 subscribers so not everybody saw Case and Court.’

Five years ago aside from Jar City and The Night Shift, Icelandic film and TV was largely unknown in the UK. You couldn’t get hold of DVDs. Now you can order DVDs from nammi.is or watch streaming films on Icelandic Cinema Online. People are intrigued after Trapped and want to watch more.

‘I think we also have to thank the Scandinavian drama. We are learning a lot from Scandinavian and British drama as well. Most definitely Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian is coming strong as well. We are kind of riding that wave as well. If weren’t for Borgen and Susanne Bier and all these great Danish actors that are coming out like Mads Mikkelsen and that lot from Festen. All those guys. They kind of paved the way for us. Because of Scandinavia. they were getting more acknowledged in the UK and America. It wasn’t that case ten years ago with them.’

In the UK it started with Wallander, and it ignited something in the public. The Killing, Borgen, and The Bridge followed. Now you have Scandinavian actors guest starring in British shows and Hollywood movies. That’s already starting to happen with Icelandic actors.

‘I think we have something for us. We have exceptional writers. I think that was maybe the hardest way for us in the beginning. That’s why we weren’t really acknowledged. The scripts weren’t good enough but now for the last seven, eight years there has been a lot of development in that. “OK, this is what we need to do. It’s got to be a good story.” It was definitely not the case early on.’

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Was there a moment when you noticed Icelandic TV was competing on an equal footing in terms of quality?

‘Well Court, the first series, it kind of got that stamp. It was kind of we’ve got something now. And then they followed a few other ones, Astridur and Pressa. We all of a sudden had writing teams. It wasn’t just this one person, this one scriptwriter. The writer of The Court is the same writer that wrote Trapped. I think it was, I don’t know, seven or eight years ago I had this feeling that we were on the right track. It’s all combined of course. We had a lot of stage actors so they were performing very stage-like. Big and strong. For the camera, it was like humongous. It doesn’t fit. So we kind of figured OK we’ve got to tone it down. We learnt a lot from Scandinavian TV.’

Researching Icelandic actors I’ve noticed how many went abroad to train. Now you are teaching a method here in Iceland. Is that also part of the increased confidence? Icelandic talent no longer has to go elsewhere to learn. You’re teaching the next generation.

‘Yeah, maybe. There isn’t much self-doubt in Icelandic actors anymore about these things. I think they actually feel they can compete in all platforms today. I think that’s kind of new for us to realise that “oh we actually can do this”. We were kind of “this is shit, this is not going anywhere.” This of course with Case and Trapped is helping us to be more at ease and more confident about doing things that matter. Icelandic cinema and TV is actually on the rise. The government is putting more money into it. Finally, they are accepting that for every krona they put into it they get three back. It took them years to see that. I think we’re on a good roll now.’

A year ago I was in Malmo for the launch of The Bridge’s third season. A government minister spoke at the reception and he said that money invested in culture is never wasted. When you mentioned about for every krona being invested the country gets three in return that quote came back to me. You invest x number of krona in a series like Trapped or Case, the revenue that comes back via tax or overseas investment benefits the rest of society.

‘No society thrives without culture. The sooner governments figure this out. They always have to have the Excel off this. They can’t see the culture rising in people. They can’t see the intelligence in people. They can’t see the adventures growing in people’s eyes unless they see it in a very statistic Excel form which is sad. Of course, I’m very glad that now they are putting more into it. They are focusing more on women which is a really good thing. The women’s voice needs to be heard more in cinema.’

That’s not just an Icelandic problem. I think that’s a problem…

‘Everywhere. We took a stand. The Icelandic Film Fund actually took a stand and said more money is going to be available for women. They going to be up front. They took a stand. I’m really, really grateful.’

Finally, I would like to ask you, is Case is an artistic career high?

‘Yeah, definitely, definitely. Usually, I never want to play the same character again but this guy is a character I haven’t…Of course, it’s a personal high. Every Case is a personal high. I’m very happy that Netflix has taken on the journey and I hope that more attention gets on Icelandic filmmaking because there’s a lot of growth here. There’s a lot of excitement in filmmaking in Iceland. I’m very happy for Icelandic cinema at the moment.’

Thanks to Magnús Jónsson.

Follow the official Case Facebook page.

Book Review and Interview: The Angels of Hammurabi by Max Seeck

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Turbo-charged thriller.

The Finnish government is sent into a state of near-panic when a member of its diplomatic staff vanishes. The only clue to Jare Westerlund’s disappearance is a series of anonymous threats sent before he went on holiday.

Frustrated with the local police force’s lack of progress, the Finnish government dispatches armed forces specialist Daniel Kuisma and Foreign Affairs Ministry assistant, Annika Lehto to Zagreb. Investigating the missing employee’s trail they uncover a tangled web of secrets.

Former peacekeeper, Daniel served in Croatia during the Yugoslav wars. As the investigation intensifies, dark secrets from his past impact upon the present. During the war he served in secret military campaigns. He soon learns that everyone who participated in the missions is in danger. Daniel is racing against time to discover who is murdering his former colleagues before he becomes the next victim.

Max Seeck’s debut novel is an atmospheric, intense, and cinematic thriller. Masterfully plotted, The Angels of Hammurabi plunges the reader into a dark world where nothing is what it seems. With curveballs hitting the reader at breakneck speed, the author ensures that the book’s ingenious conclusion is dazzling and unexpected. A promising start to a new Nordic thriller series.

Impressed with The Angels of Hammurabi I spoke to Max Seeck about the book and his future plans.

Did you always want to be a writer?

‘My initial dream job has been a movie director and / or screenplay writer. But I guess I’ve been driven by my personal need to tell a story, come up with interesting characters, events and plots and gather them into an experience. Make people react, feel and experience new things.’

What inspired you to write about a former peacekeeper investigating a missing person case in the Balkans?

‘Well, a former peacekeeper suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder is unique for one thing. The crime thriller scene has witnessed an alcoholic policeman, autistic female detective, hallucinating investigators just to name a few. They are all smart and ingenious in their own way. I wanted to create a protagonist with an original background. Also having experienced a battle combat means that he must have seen and experienced a lot of awful things – killing people – without being truly evil.’

History and sense of place is very important in The Angels of Hammurabi. How thoroughly did you research events and regions?

‘I began the writing process during a vacation in Croatia. Many events take place in locations I’ve personally been to. We also made a trip to Mostar, Bosnia and walked around the city with a tour guide. She told us about the war – how it was then and how it still affects thousands of lives in the region. However, many places, historical events and details were researched with the help of Google Maps and Wikipedia articles. I cannot even imagine how much more difficult doing a research for a book must have been 20 years ago.’

The Angels of Hammurabi feels very international in tone. Were you writing for a global audience?

‘As a matter of fact I was. I admire Nordic thriller novelists such as Jo Nesbo and Stieg Larsson – just to name a few – and I think they have done a wonderful job creating an atmosphere where nothing is too localized. You have people of different nationalities and places from all over the world. Also – if you want to make your living writing novels, you cannot rely too much on the relatively small population of Finland. Obviously the goal is to raise interest also in the surrounding countries and have the novel translated into many languages. Having an international tone doesn’t hurt here.’

How long did it take you to write the novel?

‘I started writing in 2013. The first two years I wrote whenever I had time – basically a few evenings a week. I had a few longer breaks – there was a time when I didn’t write for nine months. Most of the non-writing periods were due to my struggle with my own fears and frustration – what if nobody wants to publish this? Is the manuscript even any good? Am I wasting my time?’

Is there much of you in Daniel Kuisma?

‘Despite the things he has done in the past, Daniel is a good guy. And I’d like to see myself as a good guy too. I guess that’s pretty much it. Daniel – just like anybody else – is far from perfect. I hate characters that have no flaws. And I don’t trust people who are making a lot of effort to hide theirs. I think that there’s nothing as beautiful and genuine in a human being as one’s undisguised imperfection.’

Was Annika Lehto modeled on someone you know?

‘In the book she’s described as “young Cameron Diaz”. But on the other hand she looks a lot like someone who’s very close to me. However, her actions and thoughts have no real life source.’

Do you have any thoughts about Nordic crime fiction’s continued popularity all over the world?

‘I think Scandinavian authors and publishing houses have done an amazing job by elevating Nordic crime fiction as a household concept around the world. I think however, that the Nordic scene constantly needs new players to keep it fresh and on its toes. Now it’s time for Finnish authors to really join the club. Because despite of speaking and writing in a language nobody understands, we have amazing – and believe it or not – sometimes even darker stories to tell.’

Who are your favourite authors?

‘Am I being boring if I say there are so many? Within the crime thriller genre I admire authors such as Stieg Larsson, Jens Lapidus, Jo Nesbo and Dan Brown. The Swedish couple that goes by the name of Lars Kepler also writes great books. I’d also like to mention inspiring authors such as George Orwell, Mario Puzo and Kurt Vonnegut.’

Are you going to write a sequel to The Angels of Hammurabi?

‘Most definitely. I have started the writing process.’

What advice would you give to someone writing their first novel?

‘I’m not sure anyone should give advice after having one published novel. However, I can think of one thing that kept me writing even at times it felt desperate and pointless. Be determined. Once you have decided to write a book, don’t let any excuse or anybody else to stop you from doing so. You need to have the compelling need to finish what you started. Whether your book will be published or not, not finishing your manuscript will haunt you forever. Take your time and enjoy the process. It’s never fast or easy. Writing Angels of Hammurabi took me three years. And most of the time I just loved writing it.’

Thanks to Max Seeck and Elina Ahlbäck Literary Agency.

Max Seeck is published by Tammi.

Max Seeck is represented by Elina Ahlbäck Literary Agency.

Max Seeck
Max Seeck

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 sheep, 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  

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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/

Yusuf Toropov Interviewed

Yusuf-Toropov

Irish based American author discusses his controversial début novel.

Author of several non fiction books, including Shakespeare for Beginners, Yusuf Toropov is also a noted playwright. His début novel, published by Orenda Books, is a complex and challenging book that compels the reader to question their preconceptions about the war on terror.

When writing  Jihadi: A Love Story did you anticipate controversy?

I did. The book presented itself as a provocation to me, and the premise – a US intelligence agent is accused of terrorism — left me wondering about a lot of big questions. So yes, I expected some people to get the book and others to be taken aback by it. It’s meant to help you connect with people you might not otherwise meet. It’s meant leave you thinking, make you consider challenging your own assumptions, and I certainly knew that sometimes people resist that. Lately, I’ve taken some heat online for daring to talk openly about an American Muslim’s perspective on the so-called War on Terror, which is part of the book. That didn’t come as a surprise.

How did you keep track of the strands when plotting the multiple source narrative structure? Did you use a software package or integrate sections during revision?

It really wasn’t as complex as all that. I didn’t use any special software. There were just two voices to manage, one belonging to a guy who knew he was going to die, and the other belonging to someone who wanted the last word. I moved scenes around, but you do that on any novel.

The use of multiple stylistic and structural techniques to convey the novel’s themes places it firmly within the realms of postmodernism. Is this a reflection of your reading preferences?

Guilty as charged. There’s a big poster of Vladimir Nabokov up on my bedroom wall. He was also a modernist, I think, but I am a PALE FIRE junkie, which is definitely postmodern. John Banville has been called a postmodernist, so has Jorge Luis Borges. All heroes of mine.

In your opinion, is the book plot or message driven?

I hope it’s driven by the characters. The only way I got the plot to work was by listening to them. I want the book to be its own message, whatever’s driving it.

You are working within a genre and use devices more commonly found in literary fiction. Was it hard finding a publisher who would accept the manuscript?

It did throw some people. But I should say, I didn’t even realize I was writing a thriller until I was about 10,000 words in. Genres are a marketing tool, I think. I always approached it as a book first, as something that was meant to tell a story. That’s the ultimate meta-genre: A story you care about as a reader. That’s what I was going for. I’m a true believer in destiny, so I think I found the publisher I was supposed to find at the precise moment I was supposed to find her. Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books gave me some amazing notes on the manuscript. I’m very grateful we connected, and I know there was a reason we did.

Did you at any point consider self publishing?

No.

You actively engage with readers and fellow writers on Twitter. How important is social media in terms of finding an audience?

I think it’s just part of the equation now. One way or another, interactive media is going to play a role in how your work is going to be perceived. To me it just make sense to engage with people.

Jihadi: A Love Story  was issued as an e-book several months before the print edition was published. What, if any, are the advantages of publishing digitally for a new writer?

It’s a double-edged sword. It gives people easier and more immediate access to your book. At the same time, there are some books, and I think mine is one, that benefits from a physical presence. I’m of two minds. Personally, I’d rather read fiction in a physical book, and I think that kind of reader is who I was writing for.

Will we see a second book? If so, when?

You will. I honestly don’t know how long it’s going to take. Books are different from babies, there’s no predictable gestation period. But it’s on the way.

Yusuf Toropov is published by Orenda Books.