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 Iceland Noir literary festival.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Night Shift is what you are best known for internationally. How did you become a director? Did you go to film school?
‘Actually, I just 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.’
Until the mid 80s you only had one TV station here. Stöð 2 started broadcasting in 1986, Was it hard to get that first clip shown on air?
‘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. It’s usually quite easy, even for a young filmmaker to get a meeting with the programme managers of the 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. It’s quite easy, especially with music videos. 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 or know 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 to things. 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, Like I said, everything is within reach so if you have a minimum amount of talent and some determination you can make stuff.’
The opportunities you’ve had were in part because of a new channel which was more youth orientated. Were there any other people from your generation who made a similar transition from shooting band videos to making broadcast televisions?
‘Yeah. There were a few. There are a few others that took that path. 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 a film school in Iceland then and basically we don’t have a proper university degree film school today. We just have this college based thing.’
Do you think that’s an asset? I went to film school. You have theory imposed on you and you are told the story has to be told this way. By not being tutored in that environment do you think you’ve found a voice you might not have found otherwise?
‘I think so. 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 every day for a few years and got VHS tapes to watch.’
That sounds very much like Tarantino. He worked in a VHS library. He didn’t go to film school and learnt from watching obscure Spaghetti Westerns and Blaxploitation films. Were there any films that you were renting back then that have stayed with you?
‘I saw the early works of John Cassavetes. Shadows and Faces and A Woman Under the Influence and all that stuff. 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. That kind of appealed to me. Most of the stuff I’ve done as a writer and a director are reality-based stuff even though it’s a bit more comic. The Night Shift is a drama or a tragedy disguised as a comedy. That’s kind of how I see it. I hook the people in with the comic elements but little by little I start to deconstruct that and go into the core elements of it.’
When The Night Shift aired in the UK it was the comic elements that got people watching. The latter episodes of the season get darker. I don’t know how much of that is characteristic of Icelandic humour. It’s very mythic. Three characters who shouldn’t be together are thrown together and then can’t be separated. It’s almost as if they are three elements of the same self.
‘Yes. I always say if you took those three guys and fuse them together they would make one person. They are three different elements to the same thing. They are very extreme. Olafur is so completely different to Georg and Daniel is stuck between as some kind of reality or sanity meter. The genesis of it was the cold war. Olafur is the capitalist elements, the US, the consumer while Georg is the communist. Daniel is Iceland stuck in the middle.’
That meaning may not have come across to UK audiences. A new meaning was formed. The characters weren’t metaphors. It was psychological. They’re such damaged people and are all carrying a trauma. For the TV series it’s as though by being together they are making this trauma worse, In the feature film by being together they find closure. They heal. Olafur finds success on the radio station. Daniel decides to stop living a lie and goes to art school. Daniel’s embracing of his truth releases Georg from his prison.
There’s some sophisticated, intelligent comedy there and yet you never go totally for the comedy. The tragedy is balanced When you were creating The Night Shift were you deliberately trying to hit all those approaches or was it pitched to the network as a comedy-drama?
‘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. I had Jón Gnarr and Pétur Jóhann, 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 have 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. For me, it was really important to address all those elements that you mentioned of complexity because I want the series to reflect life and life is complex. There’s no good and bad or black and white, it’s all shades of grey. I think it’s really interesting to look at the whole thing, series, and film, from the concept of friendship. They are thrown in like you say. They have no control over that. They are thrown in together in that situation. 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. It’s a big, big struggle actually. They end up in prison and stuff like this. Friendship is often stronger than blood and they don’t have this connection with their families. They are traumatized 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 Bjarnfredarson ends is a huge journey.’
When you delivered the scripts for the first episode to the network were they aware that they had something special or was it just another comedy show to them?
‘The funny thing is that they never read a single word. I pitched it. They knew when I pitched the idea and the cast. They liked the idea of the cast. I don’t think they had any particular interest in the story because it was just a situation. 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.” 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.’
Sometimes when you’ve got a show that’s going to be a cult hit you can know the next morning. Someone on the bus or a train might be repeating a catchphrase. How quickly did you know that the audience were responding favourably to The Night Shift?
‘The first episode, what you heard was very negative. Negative in the sense people instantly started saying “ that guy played by Jón Gnarr, Georg Bjarnfredarson, is so obnoxious. He’s such a terrible person. I freaked out when I watched that show. He’s an idiot.” We instantly got a very strong negative reaction to a character which we knew we would get. We put so many negative things into that character. Those people that watched the first show they watched the second because there 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, old people were talking about it everybody was talking about it after that fourth episode. 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.’
If The Night Shift had been filmed in the UK the producers wouldn’t have used Shell. It would have been set in a fictional garage. The interiors would have been filmed in a studio. Was there any time when the network was saying it would be cheaper to film in a studio?
‘No. The whole series cost as much as one episode of a crime show today in Iceland. It was done very guerilla style. Very small crew, I think there were seven or eight people in the crew. It was done during the night. The gas station where we shot closed at seven thirty and we came in and prepped, started shooting at eight or eight-thirty after we shaved the head of Jón. We shot until seven o’clock in the morning. We didn’t pay anything for the location. Everything was basically done as cheaply as possible.’
You say you didn’t pay, did the company gift the location for so many weeks?
‘Yes because they weren’t closing down or anything. The only thing they had to do was have a night watchman observing things but he mostly wasn’t there. He maybe was there for the first few days, I can’t remember.’
In the UK or USA with a series like The Night Shift, every line of the script would be vetted by the company’s lawyers.
‘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 didn’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.’
So was The Night Shift meant to be self-contained or were you already thinking about taking the characters and placing them in a new location?
‘When we were developing The Night Shift we wrote it fairly quickly. We started meeting late August 2006 and we started shooting in early January 2007. We developed the characters and wrote the scripts in like three or four months. All the ideas in Bjarnfreðarson the movie that’s basically the material we wrote for the backstory of Georg. We thought it would be a one-off thing. We had no idea that it would become that popular that people would ask for more. There was a huge demand for a second series of The Night Shift. I’m not big on repeating myself and none of us are. So we thought to ourselves OK should we do another one because we love those characters and there’s so many things you can do with them. Jón came up with the idea of the hotel because it was a hotel his father had built. Jón was there as a kid. He slept there. He remembered being there at like 10 years old or 8 years old while his father was one of the guys who built it. I knew that because it’s very close to the place I grew up in so I stop there every summer. It’s a place I know quite well. He came up with this idea, “what about this hotel? What if they go there?” That kind of clicked with everybody because it was something new. It was not a continuation of a gas station but it would be the next chapter in a saga or a more epic tale.’
That’s the point where it becomes richer. The characters get more to do. With The Night Shift, people were comparing it to The Office. There’s more depth, backstory, and motivations in The Day Shift. Georg starts on his journey to becoming really unlikeable. By the end of the third series, the viewer hates him and it’s not until the movie you find out why he is what he is and you love him again. By the time you got to the second series you must have known you were going to do a third.
‘Actually, when we did The Day Shift it has this element of a Greek tragedy. Obviously, it dictates what happens next because it ends with two guys going to prison. We didn’t have to think about that. They go to prison. We thought to ourselves while we were doing The Day Shift about Bjarnfredarson the movie. We thought to ourselves that maybe we’ll jump from Day Shift, we’ll skip the prison years and we’ll go to Bjarnfredarson. Maybe a part of Bjarnfredarson. We thought about that element. But then The Day Shift was as popular as The Night Shift and people were screaming for more. In a way The Prison Shift because we decided to do Bjarnfredarson as a movie We started writing Bjarnfredarson and as a way to do everything very quickly and efficiently we decided to The Prison Shift because that funds the making of the movie. That’s the reason The Prison Shift is a shorter series than the other ones. We shot it back to back. Started shooting in June and we ended up in August so we basically shot Prison Shift and Bjarnfredarson back to back. It was one production period.’
When UK dramas shoot in a real prison they usually get access because the prison is closed for renovations. You got access to a maximum security prison. Did you have to go to the government or did someone at Sagafilm know a member of the Justice Department who was able to secure access?
‘Basically what happened was that my producer Harpa knew the head of the prison. An ex-politician who runs the prison. She called her up and said “we have this idea of doing this. Would it be possible to come in and discuss this?” So me and Harpa and I think a couple of others went there to talk to her. She was really open to it. Of course because of the popularity of the thing it kind of opens doors also. She was really positive and open about it. We never went to anybody in government. We went to the head of the prison system in Iceland. He was also really positive. He got a bit of an extra role playing a referee in a football game in Prison Shift. They were really open to it. We basically decided to do it. We shot all the stuff within those walls. The scenes we did where they are living, where the cells are, the communal thing, the tea room, that we had to build in a studio because there are no empty cells. Our set designer went in and replicated it exactly. It’s a small place one of those halls. He replicated it piece by piece so everything was perfect. We shot all the exterior scenes, all the working scenes, the shop or the garage where they are working, the staircases, and the control rooms. Everything was shot in the prison. The prisoners were very helpful. Of course, they don’t appear. We don’t see them. The rule was we had to bring our own extras in so the number of people in the prison doubled around that time. I actually got an acute sense at one point that they were planning an escape through this because there was some signs that things were missing. There was kind of things that were going on. Some creative minds within the prisoners were trying to find a way to get out through this because we had to come in maybe twenty people, thirty people, forty people every morning go through security and stuff like this.’
Did any of the crew members feel threatened or have stuff stolen while they were filming in the prison?
‘Nothing was stolen. People were, of course, a bit nervous. Us, the writers and actors, we had gone there many many times while we were writing to meet people, to interview people and I was kind of a bit I wouldn’t say scared but a bit nervous the first time to go into one of the rooms of a prisoner. To meet those guys in a group it’s like shit you’re in their home basically. After about ten minutes it all kind of evarporised because I realized that it’s just like kids. Of course, there are a few sociopaths but most of them are just kids in grown-ups bodies. They are dyslexic or AD or hyperactive. When You talk to them you realize that basically they’ve had bad upbringing or come from a broken family which is very close to what we were dealing with.’
For a UK audience, it’s an interesting document because it gives an insight into how the justice system works in Iceland. The rehabilitation system is more enlightened than what we have. It’s reflected in the show, Olafur thinks he’s gone to a holiday camp when he finds out he’s getting paid.
‘Free food and lodging.’
When The Day Shift aired on TV did the audience know that The Prison Shift and Bjarnfredarson were coming?
‘No. We kept everything hidden. When The Day Shift came out we just said in the media that this is the end, this is the last one just not to put people’s hopes up or anything like that. We could have ended after Night Shift. The end of The Night Shift is in that way it’s an ending. The Day Shift basically ends of course in an ending also. There’s a change in their lives. So we just said this is the final thing. We didn’t want to tell people that we were going to keep on going. If Day Shift wouldn’t have been popular it would have been terribly received because it’s much heavier than Night Shift. It has a murder in it and terrible things. It’s really dark in elements of it. People loved it. Even more, I think they loved it than Night Shift in a way. It got a stronger reaction. If it had been a flop we wouldn’t have made the rest. That would have been a sign that it’s not a failure but it’s a sign that something overstayed its welcome. Because it was so popular and people loved those characters still even after twenty or twenty-three episodes we just decided to do the rest.’
The film opens at the cinema. The next morning you get the box office receipts and learn you’ve beaten James Cameron. Were you opening the champagne?
‘Yeah basically. It was a great opening weekend. The lucky thing is that of course, everybody knew the shows so we knew we would have a hit. We didn’t know how big it would be but it had that fan base which was a large part of a population. I was kind of a skeptic because when I saw that Avatar was on the same weekend I thought to myself this is terrible because Avatar had that big big opening. Many screens in Iceland and that’s the film every young person in Iceland wants to see. So I thought to myself we’ll be medium hit over Christmas. Competing with a big title like this decreases your audience by 30 percent at least. Then we got the numbers after the opening weekend and we were bigger than Avatar and Variety wrote about it. Then we knew that there were no worries. Even though people would go and see Avatar they would go and see the other one. They would go two times that week to the cinema.’
Throughout the 1970s it was relatively common for TV comedies to translate to the big screen. They were always seen by critics as being lesser works. The translation to cinema didn’t work. With Bjarnfredarson the opposite is the case. It’ works. It’s poetic. It’s lyrical. There’s more texture to the screens. By the time you hit that final frame it becomes apparent that every moment since Daniel first walked in for that first job interview has been leading up to this. How did resist the temptation to do a sequel? I’m sure that when you got the box office receipts it must have crossed your mind.
‘Of course, people were going OK now you’ve done Bjarnfredarson next you will do Hannesson which is Olafur Ragnar or you will do a film about each one of them. For us that was the end. Georg standing there and saying “I am not Georg Bjarnfredarson” that was for me you can’t do anything else. We fiddled around and had this funny idea that we will probably do if we live our lives to a ripe old age which was we’ll stop here. Even if it becomes the biggest film in history we’ll stop here because we can’t keep on. After this point, it will be exploitation because we’ve said what we wanted to say. This idea came up to do one more series in twenty-five years from now or from when we did Bjarnfredarson which takes place in an old folks home. Basically, all three of them end up in an old folks home but we can’t do it until the actors are old and it needs to be authentic. That’s kind of in the back of our heads.’
How soon after the release of Bjarnfredarson did Jón become mayor?
Did that help the film’s promotion?
‘No because I think that film is bigger than politics in a way for the public. A lot of the publicity Jón got, of course, came from that. That helped him become a mayor because people loved him. They had been following him through that journey of Georg Bjarnfredarson and the dedication of that and realized that he was more than a comedian. Jón has these varieties of talents. He’s a writer, he’s an actor, he’s a comic, he’s a humanist. He has all those elements. He’s a complex and a great guy. I don’t know if he would have become a Mayor unless The Night Shift, The Day Shift, The Prison Shift and Bjarnfredarson had happened. That was kind of the build up to it. I think that’s a good thing that something springs up from art. Different things into different aspects of society.’
The other two cast members were also two very accomplished comedic actors. Were they your first choices for the roles?
‘Jón and Pétur were the first choices. I had recently worked with Pétur. I worked with Jón a few years back on a cult show called Fóstbræður. It was kind of the first real sketch show in Iceland. It was a bit controversial. I knew both of those guys. That was for me the basics of starting to do it because I love those two guys. They are very similar, in a way, as persons but they are very dissimilar in qualities not as actors… Pétur has one experience in life and Jón has another. So from that those two guys spring. Pétur’s friends are Olafur Ragnar’s guys. Pétur worked in radio. Had a radio programme on that radio station that Olafur becomes popular on in the Bjarnfreðarson movie. So that’s kind of his background. Jörundur Ragnarsson plays Daniel. I wanted to have an unknown actor in that. I didn’t want to cast an older guy. I wanted a young, young actor. I just checked out all the actors coming out of the academy of arts and he was the last one to come for the audition. I took three or four or five guys into audition and he was like half an hour late. I had been waiting for half an hour and his car had broken down. He came in sweaty, mumbling excuses, very nervous and neurotic. I didn’t even have to do any casting because I decided on the spot that he was the perfect guy. He had all those elements just by walking in the door so I told him he had the part.’
Your series World’s End was it made during the same period you were producing The Night Shift and The Day Shift?
‘We started working on World’s End later in 2010. Maybe ten months after Bjarnfreðarson. That was basically the same writers. We’ve lost one of ours because he was the Mayor of Reykjavik. Jón wasn’t a part of it. He would have been if he wouldn#t have got a job somewhere. The rest of the writing team is the same. Me, Jóhann Ævar, Pétur, and Jörundur. So it’s the four of us. The role of Jörundur is bigger because he got the confidence to write. He wrote two out of nine episodes as I recall. Basically, it’s the same crew, same producers, same a lot of things you know.’
What are you working on right now?
‘I’m writing a new TV series which is drama. A six-episode drama called Prisoners. It takes place in the women’s prison in Iceland which is a very strange place. It’s stuck in the middle of a suburban neighbourhood. There’s a kindergarten next door. It’s kind of suburbia but you drive past there’s something weird. It’s a big house. There’s kind of a guarded fence around it. A bit of barbed wire. And stuff but there’s a kindergarten next to it and people live in just a normal neighbourhood.’
When will Icelandic audiences see this series?
‘We’re finishing the scripts. It’s been commissioned by the national TV. It takes time to finance. We’re hoping to shoot late next year and get it out sometime in 2016.’
What would you like to say to readers about modern Icelandic film and TV?
‘It’s hard to get Scandinavian films into the UK. I don’t why it is. Maybe it’s the American syndrome of self-sufficient and the language and stuff like this. I actually think, and you can look it up, that The Night Shift was the first TV series ever on TV in the UK.’
First Icelandic one definitely.
‘I think it was the first Icelandic and one of the first Scandinavian. I think it was around the same time as Forbrydelsen, The Killing, the Danish one. Icelandic feature films rarely go to cinemas in the UK which is a shame actually I think because we’ve had a lot of great films in the last ten years. A lot of them especially crime stuff… A lot of the other good stuff doesn’t travel. My films are screened in France, in Italy and Russia and Ukraine. Everywhere else. Never in the UK. I don’t know why. I think the situation now is that we have the talent, we have the manpower and of course, we have the stories to tell.’
Thanks to Ragnar Bragason and Quentin Bates.