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Vidar Magnussen, Anders Tangen on ‘Magnus,’ ‘Inspector Clouseau Meets Stranger Things’

CANNES — Norwegian police officer and inventor Magnus Undredal is a doofus. The only question is if he’s a total dipstick.

Stationed in the wilds of Norway, where he’s been demoted to the rank of station janitor, he’s drafted in by the shady Geir Drageset, a Central Unit special investigator in league with U.S. military intelligence in the area, to not solve the murder of a girl and disappearance of Norway’s most famous actor. Magnus’ explanation is that he’s been abducted by a troll, which causes him to be sacked for the second time in a few days.

But Magnus’ inventions, such as a chest of drawers which allows him to stake out crime scenes, well, they nearly work. And maybe’s he’s right.

A crazed fantasy-laced cop show, “Magnus” is produced by Norway’s NRK, whose credits include “Occupied” and “State of Happiness,” and Anders Tangen’s Oslo and L.A.-based Viafilm, the company behind “Lilyhammer,” Netflix’s first-ever venture into foreign-language production, and  the Netflix/NRK Viking dramedy, “Norsemen.”

Described by producer Tangen as “Inspector Clouseau meets ‘Stranger Things,’” and a “strangedy,” the supernatural mystery dramedy bowed on NRK, Norway’s public broadcaster, on Jan. 22 to upbeat ratings and reviews. Variety talked to Tangen and creator-co-writer-star Vidar Magnussen on the eve of the international premiere of “Magnus” in main competition at Canneseries.

Where did the inspiration for “Magnus” come from, Vidar?

The inspiration for Magnus comes from a variety of series and films. “Rick and Morty” for one, with their crazy universe, but also a series that lets their characters live with the consequences of their choices. Spielberg’s many sci-fi films that let real world problems mesh with a fantastical story. True Detective, where the detectives get into real trouble in a serialized universe. A great inspiration was also the films of Jaques Tati, where they solved slapstick comedy in one single shot.

“Magnus” makes impressive use of VFX, Anders, which suggests it’s now at a pricing point where it can be used on even half-hour shows.

A show like Magnus that combines fantasy and reality demands the use of SFX, such as masks and CG. Vidar and Geir had a unique vision, and wished to make the unbelievable believable. The NRK SFX department did a fantastic job combining all the shows fantasy elements into a believable show. Our budget was very limited, but we pulled it off and even impressed ourselves.

Some of the most interesting innovation in scripted series is coming in shorter formats. I sense, Anders and Vidar, that you wanted to push the half hour as far as you could into new ground for Nordic fiction, incorporating Nordic mythology, sci-fi, a procedural, horror.  But maybe I’m wrong? 

Magnussen: Absolutely. Trying to mix silly comedy into a crime story is difficult. Especially if you want the viewer to get into the story for the story itself and not just the comedy. There are other elements like horror and drama that blend in too, and to try to succeed with a balanced genre mix. We had to take each aspect of it seriously. We feel the visual style was an important element here. Giving it a filmic look heightened the universe into something more than just silliness. Hopefully.

Tangen: It is very rewarding to combine the Nordic crime genre with comedy, horror, fantasy and sci-fi. When you mix the strongest element from each genre, it becomes a playground where the creators (and viewers) can run free, creating a style, or even a genre of their own.

In a half-hour show you must push the story tempo. This fact makes it easier to create a genre-hybrid, because you don’t have to necessarily follow the rules of an hour-long format.

Vidar is orchestrating the rules of True Crime with Tatee and “Stranger Things” in a style reminiscent of “Fargo,” and combines the deep, human desire and longing to be somebody.

CREDIT: Anders Tangen

The show channels echoes from other series. It’s also a zany genre-blender. Would this mean, Vidar, that its core audience is series-literate viewers who will enjoy picking up on echoes and have no trouble changing genre gears?

Magnussen: I think both viewers with and without a massive reference brains can enjoy Magnus. A lot of work was put into making clear and simple characters that the viewer could understand quickly, whilst the plot and dialogue, especially from Magnus himself, can often sound and play out strangely. Also, topics like friendship, loss of a loved one, not being good enough, helped create archs that the viewer could relate to. But yes, I watch a lot of things, so I can see that it’s a series that makes nerds happy.

Magnus sets out to solve the murder accompanied by fellow cop who failed suicide, Dan, and a bullied 10-year-old schoolboy. At its heart, the series seems to turns on friendship, however oddball, and the attempts of a loner, Magnus, to gain a sense of peer respect. Would you agree?

Magnussen: Yes. These where the stories that we wanted in the heart of Magnus. We wanted you to root for the heroes, however lackluster or idiotic they may have been. Trying to find the least interesting characters to solve a murder, and forcing them into something interesting was a nice exercise. Having Magnus in the center pushing his surrounding characters around in places they have never been in. Magnus’ reckless behavior, and complete lack of empathy for his friend’s problems was needed to push these guys into doing anything at all. Creating real panic in characters often releases the kind of comedy I love. In episode 4 Magnus takes control of his nemesis’ voice and forces him to reveal his true self to the police. Having the actor play real terror and fear whilst doing this made me laugh a lot. True emotions, weird settings.

You shot of version of “Magnus” in English, Anders, with, unless I’m mistaken, the same actors, often Norwegian, speaking with only the lightest of accents. I believe you’ve done this before. Who has it worked, and what are the market advantages?

Humor is universal, in particular visual comedy. Also the show’s packaging, or presentation is important. Finally, language can also play a role. Viafilm creates signature content with universal themes and recognizable characters, and with its most recent shows, starting with “Norsemen,” we chose to create two language versions to help these travel-able shows to reach new markets. Additionally, this liberates our highly capable actors, whose resume’s are greatly enhanced by an English language show that crosses continents.

For us, we have not seen a reliable business model in scripted remakes; they take a lot of time to and energy to realize and the ROI is unreliable. In this new, ever-changing landscape, time is of the essence. What worked today won’t be fresh goods in two or three year’s time. We took a big risk creating  “Norsemen” as a dual-language series, but now the show has an a huge, international fan-base and is in its third season. It appears that this model will also allow viewers to discover “Magnus,” and make it possible for its creators and actors to continue with their unique vision and universe.

We strive to find homes for our shows and their humorous universes. Dramatic fiction is about life: passion, fantasy, madness, love. When a show dares to speak to life, it grabs you, regardless of whether of it is a commercial feel-good, or a tragic drama. We love to bring comedy into the mix. Being able to smile at life’s challenges, laughing at characters that remind us of ourselves and people we know is a big part of pulling on heart-strings, as well as tickling society’s nerves.

Watch “Magnus,” and see for yourself.

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