Series Mania: Kasper Barfoed on Terrorist Hostage Thriller ‘Below the Surface’

With DR’s upcoming ‘Ride Upon the Storm’ and ‘Something’s Rockin,’ series marks the first wave of dramas from SAM Productions

Kasper Barfoed On Terrorist Hostage Thriller
Courtesy of Studiocanal

Discovery Networks Denmark’s Kanal 5 has stepped firmly into Danish drama with the high-end thriller “Below the Surface,” sold by Studiocanal and produced by SAM Productions, a company launched by Adam Price, creator of “Borgen,” “The Killing’s” creator Soren Sveistrup and “Melancholia” producer Meta Louise Foldager.

From an idea by Price and Sveistrup, “Below the Surface” is show-run by Kasper Barfoed and produced by SAM for Discovery in co-production with Germany’s ZDF. It revolves around a hostage situation in the middle of Copenhagen which slowly unveils the true nature of not only the hostages and captors but the community that follows the violent event as well. Weaving back and forth between a high-paced thriller and character drama it is largely the work of Barfoed, who has directed five feature films and a dozen TV episodes. Its tension builds from minute one. Bowing earlier this month on Kanal 5, its first episode was 40% up on its slot’s average, according to Eurodata Worldwide. Variety interviewed Barfoed on his new series, which screens at this week’s Series Mania in Paris.

As its action hurtles forward, the show continuously sews doubts in the minds of the audience about the characters – both the protagonist and the hostages. And that kind of ambivalent specter where each character have flaws and strengths is very well established not only via the script itself but by the direction of the series. Could you talk about this, the ambiguity of the show.

From the very beginning, we were very concerned about breaking the traditional good-guys-vs.-bad-guys formula which is so easy to get in to when dealing with something like this. Obviously, there are characters we root for and characters we don’t. But we wanted to create both sides with tridimensional characters. That’s about exploring the darker sides of the people we root for and to understand where the people who we hope will fail come from. Because nobody sees themselves as a bad person. So it was all a matter of trying to shape the characters in order to find not only contrasts between them but also similarities. Eventually through the series the characters will bounce off each other and reflect certain aspects of each other.

Regarding direction, I was very impressed about your choice of lenses, including at some some point anamorphic lenses.

It’s all shot with anamorphic lenses actually. For me it adds some power, there’s a punch to it that made a lot of sense for this show. Because as soon as something like this happens everything feels augmented, heightened. And the scope of the anamorphic lenses just adds a size to it and a cinematic feeling that made a lot of sense for this project.

Another striking aspect of “Below the Surface” is that nowadays every action movie tries to cut the action into several shots. When you have action that is very contained, you go to a general shot. You don’t hide in the montage, which gives a very real feel to the action and the violence.

That is trying to make a virtue out of necessity. We had very little time to shoot and a limited budget for the action sequences. Also we realized, once we started staging them, that very few shots gave a different kind of realism that we really liked. The actors that performed the action had to be able to perform it. So instead of trying to copy the “Taken” or “Bourne” films,  we had to find our own tone for the sequences. I think it does obtain some kind of realism.

Could we ask about your references? Once again, the project looks quite special in its very cinematic feel.

A movie that we looked at was “Sicario,” because I really liked how it had that kind of soft-spoken, underplayed realism. What struck me was how quiet you can be in an action movie. It was something we went back to once in a while. Other than that we did a ton of research, we also met with psychologists, negotiators, SWAT teams. We met with a guy who had been hostage in real life. We spent a lot of time on trying to get a sense of how the hostages would react. Would they sit and cry all day or silently cope? Every time we didn’t know, we would look at the real people. They became our major point of reference,  real people, real life.

The narrative of certain recent dramas made in international is driven by human flaws and a frustrating stupidity.  In contrast, in “Below the Surface” the characters including the terrorist task force are very intelligent – there are very clever dialogues. These are people that are very smart facing a huge challenge, making tough decisions.

That’s a very interesting point. We talked a lot about it because when we met with many negotiators and psychologists, police people. We were obviously looking for where would the conflict could come from and I think it is very easy, very tempting to include a character who is really aggressive or who is really stupid. That makes it easy to create situations where people disagree. But what we learned when we talked to these people is that first of all they were really really smart, well trained, super resourceful and knew exactly what to do. We didn’t meet anyone who was stupid or would act irrationally in a situation like that. So it became a goal for us to create the conflict and still maintain that all the people that are working to solve this are super smart, they are the best. So find the conflict in the pressure but not in characters’ flaws – that made it more difficult but that was a major concern for us.

We’d like to ask about the writing process. As the media has pointed out, Europe is adopting writers rooms while America in the figure of the show-runner, has consecrated an auteur style born often associated, when it comes to movies, with Europe.

We were never more than three in the room together, and the combination could change.  At an early stage, I worked with another writer for two-to-three months on laying out the story events. Then I went into the next phase with two other writers, where we would outline the story episode by episode: One writer would outline and come back and we would give him or her notes and that writer would write the episode, come back and get further notes. We could be working on two or sometime three episodes at the time. We would be typically three people outlining two episodes together. Writers did two drafts of their episodes and I would take it from there. My job was to be in the room story-lining it and giving notes until the third draft.

John Hopewell contributed to this article