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

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In 2006 Ragnar Bragason wrote and directed Children. A gritty portrayal of life in a Reykjavik suburb. The film won The Golden Swan at the Copenhagen International Film Festival, an Edda at The Icelandic Film and Television Academy’s annual awards ceremony. It was selected as his home nation’s submission to the Oscars.

While readying the sequel for theatrical release Ragnar started developing a series for television about three socially dysfunctional and emotionally crippled misfits that worked the dead hours of night in a downtown Reykjavik petrol station. Trapped by character flaws and a litany of mistakes and mishaps, they seemed fated to patrol the forecourt for the rest of their working lives.

The broadcast network and its audience were initially unprepared for a tragicomic series built on crushed dreams with a strand of humour that was at times absurd, frequently politically incorrect and shot through with pathos. Midway through the season Iceland fell in love with this hapless trio and the show became a monster hit.

Demand for further misadventures was so high two sequels and a spin off movie were produced.

The Night Shift would make broadcasting history by being the first Icelandic series to air on a UK network.

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Stand up comedian Jón Gnarr, later to become Mayor of Reykjavik played hardline communist sympathiser Georg Bjarnfreðarson.

Overqualified and under-skilled. Possessing degrees in Psychology, Sociology, Pedagogy, Political Science, and Educational Studies, Georg never wastes an opportunity to let people know of his educational attainments. One of the small screens all time great comic characters. His catchphrase “personnel on the forecourt” was repeated by fans throughout Iceland.

Bearing an uncanny resemblance to Lenin, this complex figure is a cross between Captain Mainwaring, Basil Fawlty, David Brent and Joseph Stalin.

Long standing co-worker Olafur Ragnur, played by Pétur Jóhann Sigfússon, is frequently a lab rat for Georg’s hair-brained initiatives and suffers when things go spectacularly wrong. Dreaming of fame and fortune, he manages a band and is convinced the big time is just around the corner.

The death of a colleague creates a shift vacancy. Insecure and neurotic medical school dropout Daniel (Jörundur Ragnarsson) applies to head office for the post.

Working at the garage while he decides what to wants to do with the rest of his life, Daniel is fleeing from his parent’s tyranny but has unwittingly stepped into a workplace that occasionally resembles a Soviet era labour camp.

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We asked Ragnor about how he sold the series to the network.

“It was pitched to the TV station as a comedy because that’s a word they understand. That’s a word that is safe for them,” he says.

“I had Jón and Pétur, two of the main comedy actors in Iceland. I had worked with both of them on other series. I knew those two guys had the ability to do drama. They had that kind of depth to do more than comedy and that intrigued me to do something that on the surface would be comic but if you look beyond that was basically a tragedy.”

“I wanted the series to reflect life and life is complex. There’s no good or bad or black and white, it’s all shades of grey.”

With two lead actors familiar to Icelandic audiences cast in lead roles how did Ragnar find the right person to play Daniel?

“I wanted to have an unknown actor in that part. I checked out all the actors coming out of drama school and the Academy of the Arts. He was the last one to come for audition. He was half an hour late. His car had broken down. He came in sweaty, mumbling excuses. Very nervous and neurotic. I didn’t have to do any casting because I decided on the spot that he was the perfect guy. Just by walking in the door I could see he had all the right elements so I told him he had the part.”

“The station had no idea how complex it would be, it was just a comedy with two popular actors. I don’t recall ever sending out a script. They changed programme directors at the TV station in the middle of writing. So basically we got a new programme head who took over and realized they had put some money into the scriptwriting of this series. It was kind of “should we green light the whole thing, put money in the production,” he explains.

The writing of The Night Shift was a collaborative effort between Ragnar, Jóhann Ævar Grímsson, Jón Gnarr, Jörundur Ragnarsson, and Pétur Jóhann Sigfússon.

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The network was not prepared for The Night Shift’s appeal to a wide section of the TV audience.

“They thought it would be a cult thing, maybe a limited amount of young people smoking dope that would like it. The crossover thing took them completely by surprise. I actually think it saved the TV station. When The Night Shift was a huge hit subscription rate went up ten or twenty per cent.

“I think it’s really interesting to look at the whole thing, series and film, from the concept of friendship. Those completely different guys who normally would never associate with each other but they end up becoming friends. It’s a big struggle in the beginning. Friendship is often stronger than blood and they don’t have this connection with their families,” he says.

“They are traumatised in a way by life, from upbringing and their experiences. They bond and find a form of family. For me that’s really kind of precious. To take those three elements in the first episode of The Night Shift and end the way Bjarnfredrson (the spin off film) ends is a huge journey.”

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Shot in a documentary style, the series was filmed in a real petrol station. Fans regularly flock to the location and repeat catchphrases on the forecourt.

We quizzed Ragnar about how difficult it was to get the oil company on board.

“The oil company never asked for a script. Of course they asked for a pitch and which actors would be in it. They thought it would be good publicity, we don’t have to pay anything. In the end I think they should have paid us for shooting there because it picked up business for them.”

Initial response to The Night Shift was lukewarm but once the audience had got used to the strange goings on in the petrol station it became must see TV.

“The first episode, what you heard was very negative. Those people that watched the first show watched the second because their was something intriguing about it.”

“I recall it was the night of the fourth episode it kind of blew up. Everybody was talking about it. You heard people using Olafur’s phrases. It was the talk of the cafeterias of business, schools, and kindergartens. Kids were talking about it, everybody was talking about it. We didn’t expect that crossover thing where it would be across the board popular. There were no negative voices after that. Everybody latched onto it.”

In the next part of this interview Ragnar talks about the sequels and beating James Cameron at the box office.

The Night Shift can be ordered from Shop Icelandic:

http://shopicelandic.com/product-categories/dvd-s/icelandic-tv-series/naeturvaktin-the-night-shift-dvd-detail

Co-writer Jóhann Ævar Grímsson spoke to Iceland on Screen about the writing process for The Night Shift:

http://icelandonscreen.wordpress.com/2011/05/18/qa-johann-aevar-grimsson-co-writer-of-the-night-shift-naeturvaktin/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Night Shift can be ordered from Shop Icelandic:

Næturvaktin – The Night Shift (DVD)

DVD Review: The Night Shift

Currently enjoying levels of popularity and visibility that may have seem impossible a few years ago, European TV drama has transformed from niche programming into a high profile regular fixture of BBC Four’s schedule. After a two decade absence from our screens fans can now tune in each week to new series from across the continent. What may initially have started as a broadcasting experiment has been met with critical praise and an ever growing fanbase which is actively celebrating its appreciation on social media and at events such as the recent Nordicana festival. With Channel 4 and Sky Arts now following the BBC’s example by acquiring subtitled content and giving it a hitherto undreamed of promotional push alongside a steady stream of releases from Arrow Films, aficionados are all too aware they are enjoying a golden age which would not have been feasible a few years earlier.

Framed within its public service remit, BBC Four’s early forays into bringing subtitled drama back to our screens placed emphasis on cultural exchange and enlightenment. As part of a season of programming entitled Wonders of Iceland the BBC made broadcasting history by being the first UK network to screen an Icelandic comedy series.

First shown on the commercially owned station Stöð 2 in 2007, The Night Shift was an instant success. With ratings amongst the season’s highest, the show’s accomplishments were recognized by The Icelandic Film and Television Academy at that year’s ceremony with awards for ‘Best Television Show’ and ‘Most Popular Television Show.’ Despite being relatively unknown in the UK, such was the appetite in its country of origin for further instalments two sequel series (The Day Shift, The Prison Shift) and a theatrically released feature film spin-off (Bjarnfreðarson) were produced.

A petrol station in the middle of a long winter might initially seem to be an unlikely place to stage a black comedy which on the surface appears to be a synthesis of The Office and Fawlty Towers but on deeper inspection this delightfully idiosyncratic and perfectly formed programme reveals high culture credentials through its channelling of the fatalism prevalent throughout the Icelandic sagas. Veering between moments of grotesque absurdity, tenderness, and tragedy, often within the space of a single scene, The Night Shift revolves around an isolated outpost staffed by a crew of three emotionally stunted employees. An eccentric series shot through with pathos alongside frenzied bouts of insanity, it is blessed by layered scripts replete with a focus on personal enslavement, consequences, the value of friendship, and a considered array of social issues including feminism, politics, modern celebrity culture, and Nigerian e-mail scams. Equal parts character study, satire, civic commentary, the programme is decidedly politically incorrect and confrontational yet manages to never be anything less than magnificent.

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Currently in the twilight period of his tenure as mayor of Reykjavík, Jón Gnarr has recently been generating column inches with the news that American publisher Melville House has acquired the rights to his political memoir and will issuing it later this year. Titled Gnarr: How I Became the Mayor of a Large City in Iceland and Changed the World, the book will lift the lid on the formation of the Best Party, its ideals and how they may be transposed onto foreign legislative frameworks. Satirizing Icelandic democratic process Gnarr’s unwittingly galvanized an anti-establishment movement seeking to bash the ruling elite for their role in the 2008 financial crisis. A Nordic equivalent of The Monster Raving Loony Party with an inspired list of pledges (and a disclaimer reminding voters they would not be honoured) was forced to redraft its policies into something more practicable after winning six seats on the Reykjavík city council in the 2010 elections.

Before becoming an elected official. Gnarr had a fruitful career as a stand-up comedian and was a regular feature on Icelandic radio and TV. His prior media achievements were eclipsed by the public’s response to his signature role, Georg Bjarnfreðarson.

Proudly possessing degrees in Psychology, Sociology, Pedagogy, Political Science, and Educational Studies Georg is undoubtedly overqualified for the position of shift supervisor. One of the most complex tragi-comedic characters to hit the small screen in the last decade, an amalgam of Basil Fawlty, David Brent and Joseph Stalin, with a visage clearly inspired by Vladimir Lenin. Running the petrol station as a totalitarian regime he makes token concessions, under duress, to popular democracy and then after being highly critical of the process rigs the results. A critique in dramatic form of uncompromising left wing ideologues, nuanced writing and a knowing performance reveal a pathetic figure hiding behind the bluster who maintains a wrench like grip on the workplace whilst being powerless when away from the forecourt. Frequently inviting loathing and sympathy, despite his oft mentioned academic achievements he is rarely able to strike an accord with his colleagues and relies on threats of sanctions (fines or an onerous chore) and a barrage of humiliating comments expressed in the most inappropriate moments.

Long-standing co-worker Ólafur Ragnar (Pétur Jóhann Sigfússon) has been employed at the petrol station for longer than any of his colleagues and feels undervalued. A reflection of Georg, they both live at home with family members and aspire to make an impact on society. Whereas his boss wants to remould Iceland to comply with a mishmash of ideas taken from Sweden’s social democratic model and Soviet era Russia, Ólafur has a hankering for fame and its attendant trappings. Manager of the band Solin, he is unshaken in his conviction that the big time is just around the corner. Stretched to breaking point by having to administer the band’s affairs whilst on duty at the forecourt he frequently fails at both tasks. A man-child, mid thirties with the mental age of a teenager. Incapable of overseeing his own affairs, credit blacklisted and not earning enough to fund the lifestyle to which he aspires his sister has had the misfortune to house him, never really expecting to receive the oft promised rent payments. His sibling lives in perpetual fear of finding out their grandmother stricken by Alzheimer’s disease has been coerced into guaranteed a loan or finance for a car.

The offscreen death of Gudjon creates a vacancy at the petrol station and this is filled by Daniel Sævarsson (Jörundur Ragnarsson). Nervy and unsure of himself, recoiling from the ramifications of leaving medical school, he has sought solace in regular paid employment whilst undergoing an existential crisis. Escaping from the lifestyle imposed by his parents, working at the petrol station allows him to take control of his personal destiny for the first time. The radical restructuring of Daniel’s life is a covert operation, his family and girlfriend are convinced he is still enrolled at the university and the discovery of the deceit has far reaching consequences. Breaking away from one form of tyranny he is now sheltering within a workplace cum despotic regime. Days are filled with degradation, discussions of holiday funds, security role play, supervision of Georg’s son Flemming Geir (Arnar Freyr Karlsson), and instructions on correct floor cleaning procedure. Salvation may be be found at a nearby all night convenience store where an assistant, Ylfa (Sara Margrét Nordahl) offers the possibility of a relationship based on mutual respect.

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Screened nightly in two episode blocks by BBC Four, The Night Shift‘s viewing figures were respectable and fans assumed that the station would pick up the sequel series. Sadly, this attempt to broaden the network’s schedule seems to have been a dead end rather than a concerted effort to diversify its content. Firmly committed to screening drama throughout 2014, it highly unlikely at this stage the powers that be will reverse their decision and give us further glimpses of Nordic comedy.

Fondly remembered by those who caught it, a worldly script coupled with knowing faux cinema verite direction from Ragnar Bragason and mature performances from the series regulars and guest cast, exemplifying joy and despair combine to create a highly original show deserving of greater exposure.

A DVD with English subtitles can be ordered from Shop Icelandic:

Næturvaktin – The Night Shift (DVD)

Nordic Noir as a category

In the context of an article discussing the forthcoming latest televisual adaptation of Simenon’s literary Maigret texts, Tara Conlan classified the relatively recent televisual trend of broadcasting subtitled television programming to niche audiences as being part of a ‘Euro-crime invasion.’ Certainly, if one specifically focuses on the publication of literary texts a case may be made based on an analysis of sales figures, accompanied by other investigative methodology, to demonstrate that the distribution of Scandinavian crime fiction over the last decade within the UK and Ireland has resulted in an increased audience awareness of cultural, subcultural and geographic factors that are specific to the Nordic condition. However, with regards televisual texts, to talk of Scandinavian programming in the context of an ‘invasion’ is deeply problematic and raises several significant issues, most notably due to the connotations attached to this term as it implies a displacement and/or eradication of the indigenous form. That a number of televisual and filmic texts have not only been imported and broadcast on free to air networks but have also found an audience in quantitative terms and audiences with regards to qualitative approaches of classification is a potential area of enquiry for the rapidly emerging discipline of Fan Studies. The promotion of said texts by various international embassies is also an interesting development particularly in terms of the legitimization of popular culture artefacts and their corresponding fandoms.

BBC Four’s limited financial resources and available slots has resulted in a very narrow sample of televisual texts being available via broadcast platforms although Arrow Films and other DVD distributors have announced several titles for 2013 release which are not presently scheduled to be carried by any UK based free to air broadcaster. In terms of generic classification/codification Nordic Noir may be fluid and consequently with each new text the parameters are redefined. The inclusion of Lilyhammer, for instance, suggests that the generic form may now be sufficiently defined for it’s audience to appreciate parody. Also, BBC Four’s transmission of Icelandic series Næturvaktin (The Night Shift) whilst marketed by the broadcaster as comedy has been classified by several fans on assorted forums as being a Nordic Noir text. Have we now reached a point where the term Nordic Noir is simultaneously meaningful and meaningless? Is the term now an intersection which facilitates a struggle between audience and institution over ownership of generic boundaries?

As we, the viewing audience, ready ourselves to engage with the final season of Forbrydelsen the object of our fandom is analysed in press commentary, promotional materials, and user generated content such as forum postings and blog entries. The Irish Independent has published an article which debates potential sources of viewing pleasure for Nordic Noir programming, forms of cultural identification, and associated motivational factors with regards audience loyalty. Another example of institutional discourse being made available to the fan community is the well researched booklet that Arrow Films has distributed alongside several of its titles, this text contains a narrative account of the development by Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen of Nordic Noir as a literary genre that emerged in response to generic developments in other territories and as a consequence of social and political developments within the post war Scandinavian cultural context. Stougaard-Nielsen also addresses cinematic and televisual developments. Furthermore, Arrow Films booklet announces several titles which will be released in the UK and Ireland in 2013; Anno 1790, The Eagle, The Protectors, Unit One and Van Veeteren. With the release of each title the boundaries of what constitutes Nordic Noir could conceivably shift/expand. Through the utilisation of social networking and via the film club that enables distributor to directly interact with the consumer within a physical setting Arrow Films has engaged with its fanbase and it will be interesting to see how audience conceptions of the generic category impact upon the release strategy and optioning of further texts for UK and Ireland release.

 

Tara Conlan’s article on Maigret can be read here; http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2012/oct/16/maigret-return-tv

 

The Irish Independent’s article on Nordic Noir can be read here;

http://www.independent.ie/lifestyle/ten-clues-to-the-amazing-success-of-nordic-noir-3275996.html

 

 

For those interested in reading further about the formation and maintenance of Nordic Noir as a genre Vicky Albritton’s well researched blog contains many articles which debate individual texts, key generic, social and historical developments;

http://nordicnoir.wordpress.com/