Goteborg: A Small Country Goes Small Screen With Iceland’s Newest Suspense Series, ’Prisoners’

Iceland's Ragnar Bragason premieres family drama “Prisoners” at Goteborg

Copyright: Arni Filippusson

“Prisoners” marks the new series from Iceland’s Ragnar Bragason, who has been receiving awards and nominations across Europe for more than a decade for movies such as 2013’s “Metalhead,” which won the Dragon Award for Best Nordic Film at 2014’s Goteborg Festival.

It certainly doesn’t look like a series born from a country of less than a third of a million people and a GDP smaller than many major European cities. “Prisoners” impresses with production values that could rival many self-proclaimed high-end series in Europe, as well as a cast of cinema veterans and a multi-laureled creative team. On paper, the show’s pedigree is one that suggests a reach beyond the shores of the island nation.

“Prisoners” begins with Linda, played by “Metalhead” alum Thora Bjorg Helga, putting her father into a coma after brutally attacking him with a golf club. Although her motivations are not disclosed, it seems likely that her problems with substance abuse are at the core of her erratic behavior. But as the series advances, the audience is teased that there may be a much darker secret that her family is hiding which led to her actions, a secret which could potentially result in her freedom.

The bulk of the series takes place inside the walls of Iceland’s exclusive all woman prison, while also focusing on Iceland’s current political landscape. While locked up, Linda continues to struggle with substance abuse when another prisoner, Brynja, played by fellow co-creator-producer-writer Unnur Ösp Stefánsdóttir, is able to provide her with a chemical escape from the troubles she faces inside the prison. Outside, her family scrambles to maintain a tenuous hold on a situation which is quickly spiralling out of control, parallel to the health of the family’s patriarch.

The series was co-financed by RUV, the Icelandic Film Centre, Nordisk Film & TV Fond and the Ministry of Industries and Innovation. Global Screen secured solid pre-sales for the series in the Nordic region, signing with DR, NRK, SVT, YLE and Canal PLUS Poland. The company handles one of the largest film-TV catalogs in Europe with series like “Alarm for Cobra 11” and “Storm of Love” and feature films such as “Das Boot” and “Good Bye Lenin!” Head of Mystery Productions and “Prisoners” lead producer David Ólafsson talked to Variety about the now-finished product and its future potential.

The first episodes present parts of the political landscape. As the series goes on, does the political subplot grow in significance? And what was the motivation in including the political story-line?

Yes and no. One of our main characters is a politician so it is part of her journey to take part in politics throughout our series. But it isn’t a main focus. The reason for us bringing in the political aspect was mainly to show the gulf in our society. From the wealthy to the less fortunate. We wanted to show that tragedy doesn’t choose who it hits based on your status in life. We all have to deal with it in our own way and our series tells the story about a specific family doing exactly that.

For “Prisoners,” you secured the services of one of Iceland’s hottest young filmmakers, Ragnar Bragason. Can you explain the circumstances that lead him to cross back to TV?

Ragnar has actually done a lot of TV in Iceland so his transition happened many years before we did “Prisoners.” When we were approached by Nina and Unnur (Creators) they had already been talking to Ragnar to get his feedback on the material. When we then started talking about a director Ragnar was our first choice. Through his earlier work, he has shown a great understanding of, and sensitivity towards, storytelling and his ability to work with actors is truly special. So it was an easy choice to make.

Iceland’s population is a little over 320,000, the language is spoken by only a small number of people in Europe. Yet this series feel and look could rival any of Europe’s biggest territories. How did you achieve this, given such a small domestic market?

We knew that we had something truly special in our hands. A female-driven story taking on sensitive matters and putting a focus on them. We felt the interest from all directions and when we went out and started financing the series, things just fell into place. We set our aim high in all aspects of the production. We wanted to elevate the TV form in Iceland and make it as good as we could and add a cinematic feel to it and I think that we accomplished just that.

How important do you see each individual country’s ability to produce high quality local content?

Every country has its stories to tell and these stories aren’t only interesting to the locals. So maybe it shouldn’t be called “ local” anymore when today’s TV and Films travel across borders and it doesn’t matter what language it’s in. The only thing that matters is that we tell high quality stories that make an impact viewers. If it is well done it will find its home.

The series was successful in securing pre-sales in the Nordic region. What is the sales outlook internationally and how motivated are you to move the series internationally?

Yes. we where able to secure sales to all the Nordic broadcasters which was great. This of course motivates us since it is our goal to get our series to as many viewers in as many countries as possible. We believe that we have something great to present and the story can reach a wide audience. So we are very optimistic for the future regarding international distribution.

You have a cast and crew composed of cinema veterans with multitude of awards from festivals. What do you think this says about TV in Iceland – that so many talented people from cinema are crossing over into the world of television?

In Iceland, it’s a concentrated group of talent that works in the film industry and we work in both TV and Film. But the reason for the blooming in TV coming out of Iceland is because of a newly-acquired interest from abroad for this format. We are finally feeling that we will be able to finance projects the way we want. To have the time needed to deliver great quality material that has a possibility to travel way beyond our borders.

What are the prospects of future seasons of “Prisoners”?

We are just starting to discuss a second season: We are all interested in keeping up telling these stories.