Goteborg: Producers Gray and Hummelvoll Talk Political Thriller ‘Occupied’

Yellow Bird produces with pubcaster Arte France, France’s Geteve, Sweden’s SVT and Norway’s Hummelfilm

Norway, the near future. Sparked by climate change, a catastrophic hurricane hits Norway, killing dozens. The sympathetic environment party head Jesper Berg, man of large principles and little realpolitik, is swept to power. His election victory comes, however, as the U.S. has become self-sufficient in energy; and civil war nixes Arab state oil production. Opening Norway’s first thorium clean energy plant, Berg declares a halt to oil and gas production in Norway, which the rest of Europe, teetering on an energy crisis, so desperately needs. Backed by the E.U., Russian forces take over Norway’s rigs.

Boasting one of the biggest original leaps of imagination of any series coming out of Europe, “Occupied” is based on an original idea by novelist Jo Nesbo (“Headhunters”). “Occupied” has the producer pedigree of Zodiak Media Group’s Yellow Bird, whose credits include “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” “Headhunters” and “Wallander,” Swedish pubcaster SVT, France’s GTV Productions (“Highlander”) and Norway’s film-TV production house Hummel Film (“Underdog,” “The German Doctor”).

Helmed and co-written by “Insomnia” director Erik Skoldbjaerg political thriller “Occupied” is billed as Norway’s biggest TV series to date,. It is also one of its most original. It has riveted viewers – it grabbed a 53.4% share on Norway’s TV2 – and seduced buyers in the U.K., U.S. and beyond. As the Russian occupation escalates, the same passions and disagreements, often large, between the characters in the series may play out between viewers about the series’ characters’ actions. That could be chalked up as one of its achievements.

Variety quizzed “Occupied’s” producers Marianne Gray and Gudny Hummelvoll before “Occupied” screens at Sweden’s Goteborg Festival:

U.S. series are often informed by a capitalist/entrepreneur mindset: Hard work, technical advance, rationality and expertise solves challenges. “Occupied” reflects a very different vision: People’s irrationality and passion – as well as chance – often drive events. Would you agree?

We don’t agree at all that it is irrational. The original concept from Jo Nesbo is based on the notion that certain things seem totally unlikely until they actually happen. What we have here is a situation that is completely unexpected and our characters have to deal with that. Things are seldom black or white in real life and we try to expose the dilemma of this in portraying conflicts where you can sort of understand both sides.

In the same vein, characters such as Prime Minister Jesper Berg can be capable of utter irrationality, which is applauded – turning off traditional energy sources before new ones come online and cold rationality – seeking to avoid war with Russia, which seems to chances of political re-election.

Jesper Berg is an idealist, a passionate one, who is forced to become a pragmatist for the good of the country, to avoid getting into a war. His character is not that of a seasoned politician but rather a passionate environmentalist who is able to come to power following a series of catastrophic events. He is leading a country completely left on its own in this situation and re-election is not his primary focus here.

For anybody born in the aftermath of World War II, collaboration is a dirty word. Audiences of  “Occupied” are likely, however, to root for characters such as Hans Martin Djupvik, the P.M. bodyguard turned security force head, who do collaborate with the Russians in an attempt to prevent an escalation of hostilities that would prevent the Russians leaving. I wonder if you could comment.  

When you look back at what really happened during WW2 in Norway, it’s easy to think that most people were in opposition but the truth is that not everyone was a hero, a lot of people did nothing, some were collaborators and some even took advantage of the situation. The very premise of our series is posing the question what would you do? In your comfortable life, what are you willing to give up?  Does the safety of your family come first? Hans Martin is not really a collaborator but is rather in a situation where he believes he is doing what is best for the country. We hope we successfully show the nuances of this difficult balance of right or wrong through his character.

The film is described as the biggest-budgeted series ever shot in Norway at a total of E9.5 million. I wonder if this was the final budget and that budget was just a result of the story, which naturally demanded a high budget, or if you think, with so many original series coming on tap, high-end series is one very good way to go, if justified of course by a story….  

It’s obviously not a goal to make an expensive series. The reason it cost a lot is because it is big in scope, it’s not 2 people investigating a crime. We have so many characters, so many locations and covering so many arenas – politics, journalism, police etc. We also had very high ambitions in terms of the look, it needed to hold up to an international standard as we have international co-producers.

I believe the series was written by its co-creators Erik Skjoldbjærg and Karianne Lund and Erik then directed. Much is made these days of writers’ rooms and also the concept of a “showrunner.” To what extent were either used on “Occupied”? Producer responsibilities seem shared by you and Gudny and your partners at GVT.

Even though the american version of a Showrunner is not applicable in Scandinavvia, we have absolutely tried to adopt the “writers room” method of writing. Karianne Lund as head writer and Erik Skjolbjaerg as conceptualizing directer are the center of creative process. There are additional writers and  Gudny and I as producers are very much a part of the writers room. I have also actively been working on developing this idea since 2008 when Jo Nesbo first pitched it to me.

What do you think you’ve learnt from making “Occupied” which you could take forward for your next series? 

We’ve already started writing on a second season in order to be ahead of the process. We were forced by different circumstances to start production without having the scripts ready last time and that caused us to be behind schedule during the entire process. We will definitely try to avoid the stress of that this time.

Netflix launched “Occupied” in the U.S. on Jan. 15. Zodiak has sold “Occupied” to much of northern Western Europe. I wonder if you could quickly sum up the sales to date, results where possible and where “Occupied” will air next?

As part of the financing Occupied was sold outside of Norway to Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Island and Holland/Belgium besides our main co-producer ARTE in France and Germany. It has generally done very well and generated a ton of press, with the exception of Denmark where it was it was buried very late at night and with an obscure title. It has also sold to the Baltics, several eastern European countries including Poland, Canada and is currently running on Sky Arts in the U.K. and on Netflix in the U.S.

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