The family drama/psychological thriller “Man in Room 301” puts forward an uncommon proposition for the Nordic crime genre. Commissioned by Finnish streamer Elisa Viihde, the six-part limited series was originally developed by U.K.-based Wall to Wall Media, which brought on actor and writer Kate Ashfield to develop the narrative back when it was still supposed to be set in England.
Ashfield stuck with the project after Warner Brothers Finland took the reins, teaming with director Mikko Kuparinen to shepherd this tense portrait of a family beset by grief. Taking place over two timelines, the series tracks the family fallout when a young boy is killed in 2007 and the clan’s suspicions when, on vacation in Greece over a decade later, they come to believe the boy’s killer is staying at the same resort.
Variety spoke with Ashfield about her work on the project.
What are the roots of this show?
The kernel of the idea is inspired by British crimes like the James Bulger case or the Madeleine McCann case. The one line premise of a family on holiday who think the murderer of their three-year-old nephew is staying at the resort as well. That’s the essence – what would you think if you saw that person who was now [a decade older] but you don’t know for sure if it’s them? That was the original idea [that Wall to Wall pitched to me], and as soon as we knew we’d make it with a Finnish company, the story opened even further.
When Wall to Wall brought you on to the project, how else did you make this work your own?
I really opened it up and made it into a family drama. You want to keep the tension of the thriller, and the psychological elements to it, but then in order to be understandable and relatable – to not be a crime show in the same way as others – you want to keep the tension simmering within the family.
[Plus] as an actor, I thought it was a real gift to have two timelines. Every single character has this 12-year journey, where they were in one place and are in a different place now. Sometimes it’s better, and sometimes it’s worse, but we get to know the three generations of the family, and see how those instances don’t just affect the one person. They spread beyond.
The series plays with that ambiguity as to the neighbor’s true identity. Was it tough to thread that needle?
It was like a very difficult jigsaw puzzle in your mind that really makes your brain hurt. You don’t want to lead an audience down a wrong path, because ultimately that would be disappointing for them and they’ll feel tricked. So you have to find that balance of finding out who he is. [The question is] is he who the family wants him to be?
How did your process change when you moved the idea to Finland?
[Originally] the series was called “Man in Apartment 5” but we changed the title, because apparently that combination of words sounds very funny when said in Finnish, while “Man in Room 301” does not.
I had no experience of Finland before, so I did a lot of research once I got the job. They don’t criminalize children in Finland. Not like we do [in England]. So that 12-year-old would have never gone to prison and would have reacted very differently when the crime occurred, so there was a whole other territory to explore. The Finns are famously very calm and quiet, so it’s quite interesting to write a drama where you’re encouraged to write less. Because typically, they don’t say a lot!
How did your outsider perspective shape the work?
I think I forced the team to examine positions they were emotionally uncomfortable with, to not shy away from them. When we screened this in Finland, people said they hadn’t seen shows like this. [Imbuing the series with emotional intensity] was a constant push and pull; for their Finnish sensibilities it could seem over the top, while for me, it was just drama.