Sagafilm arrives at the Series Mania Co-Production Forum with a project that couldn’t be more topical: Based on a series of first-person novels penned by the pseudonymous Stella Blomkvist, a hard-nosed lawyer who takes on mysterious murder cases, the series delves into the murky waters of Icelandic politics, recently in the news in the aftermath of the “Panama Papers” scandal. Yet the timing is simply fortuitous; Stella’s adventures began nearly 20 years ago with the publication in 1997 of “The Murder in the Ministry,” and although its successors have been successfully translated into Czech and German since, no English translation has been published – a situation the series hopes to remedy.
That first book forms the basis of Sagafilm’s first series. Here, Jóhann Ævar Grímsson the show’s head writer and head of development for scripted material at Sagafilm, explains the genesis of the project, as well as the practicalities of working with an author whose identity – and gender – is still shrouded in secrecy.
Variety: What kind of character is Stella Blomkvist?
Jóhann Ævar Grímsson: It’s difficult to describe her, because she manages to be so many things. She manages, somehow, to be the detective and the femme fatale in one package – she has that life-weariness and sexiness, combined in one character. She has flexible morality, she’s clever, she’s ruthless, she’s very witty – she’s a person who is navigating through the world on her own. She’s in it for the money, but she has this one niggling problem – she has a conscience and a soft spot for the underdog. She’s kinda like Sam Spade, with a law degree and sexuality. We’re very proud of Stella, and we’re looking forward to introducing her to the world.
Are you going to be filming the books in order?
There are eight books in the series, currently – the latest book came out just this Christmas, I think. We’re adapting the first book first, and then we’ll see what happens – how well that goes. Then hopefully we’ll do the rest. There will be a book per series. Since the first one dates from 1997 we’ve had to modernize it quite a bit and basically rejig the plotline as well. The first book, and the story we’re adapting, partly, involves the prime minister and it involves a murder in the prime ministry itself, and as we introduce the character, we are immersed in a lot of scandalous things.
So it’s just a coincidence that you were developing this at a time when the Icelandic prime minister was involved in a scandal of his own?
Yes. [Laughs] It’s very handy, for marketing and such. But at least the prime minister has now resigned, so we can avoid referencing him too much. But as well as going into this territory of murder we are also dealing with all sorts of issues, like doing business with the Chinese, which is on the horizon, so to speak, in Icelandic politics. But we are still a very peaceful country. I mean, it’s a 330,000-people country in the North Atlantic, so the incidents of murder and corruption are not as large as they are in a larger city.
The structure is quite unusual for a mini-series. Why did you choose it?
We were kind of inspired by the Sherlock episodes from the BBC. I’m a big fan of them, and I think the structure there gives you much more closure and a more fun experience. Also, it’s a chance to go out of the norms, try something new. We’ve never tried this format – three 90-minute episodes – here in Iceland, and I’m nothing if not experimental in that regard.
Is the Scandi noir tag something you’re trying to move away from?
The Scandinavian noir, Nordic noir thing, is absolutely viable and fun. I enjoy it personally. But it’s not that I want to reject that, I just want to try something new with this series. I want to go back to the roots of what noir is. We’re looking at “Chinatown,” we’re looking at [the novels of] Raymond Chandler and all of those guys for inspiration.
How much freedom did you have, given that the author is very controlling about his or her identity?
We had a lot of freedom. We didn’t get any notes to speak of. That was very important to me, to have creative freedom within the framework of the book. But, yeah, the author has been very generous in giving us space to work with his character. [Laughs] I keep saying “he”, but I really have no idea!
You’ve also worked on hit crossover shows like Baltasar Kormákur’s “Trapped.” How is “Stella Blomkvist” different?
This is the first series I’ve worked on that is adapted from earlier work, so that was a challenge in and of it itself, for me personally. You don’t get as much elbow room to change things – you have to keep true to the character, you have to keep true to the spirit of the books. But at the same time, it was a fun challenge. Before this, I was a writer on the “The Night Shift” trilogy , which was shown on BBC4. That was a comedy series, with some dramatic elements, and then I was writing on “The Press” [“Pressa,” 2011] which was a crime thriller series about a newspaper. Compared to those two, this series is more stylized. In most of the work I’ve done previously, we’ve gone closer to reality than we are doing in this series. We are trying to go for a more stylistic look, with more stylistic touches in the format and the presentation of the series itself. We’re going to be using a narrator, we’re going to be using flashbacks… It’s very handy that “Fargo” series two has kind of opened up a bit of leverage for us in that regard, but we were already planning to do that before we saw it. We want to have fun with the format – the whole look of things.
Those shows clearly had an international appeal. What did you learn from them?
I think it’s mostly a case of realizing that there is a market for what we’re doing. That we are slowly becoming a global village and what used to be closed markets, because of subtitles, have opened up quite massively, and our little island stories here have just as much resonance everywhere else. I think we’ve learned not to be afraid to be true to where we come from when telling out stories, because there will be people who are interested, if we just keep our sights set on the goal of telling good stories.