One moment, Julie, just 18, a fashion influencer, 159,258 followers, is swanning down a street in Copenhagen, with her BFFs Constanze, Micke and Sofia. The next, her parents and big brother are dead, killed in a plane crash in Africa.
Julie gets the family mansion, but can’t think of any good reasons for living.
There’s a before and after, Julie says in “Kamikaze,” HBO Max’s first Danish original. “Before when I thought of time, that would bring me closer to whatever I was looking forward to. And now I only think of time as something between myself and all the things I will never get back,” she reasons.
Over the course of eight energetic half-hour episodes, Julie seeks a reason to live, while attempting comic and dramatic life-exits in a journey which takes her to Seoul, London, Mexico and finally, in an narrative stretch which punctuates the whole series, the sandy wastes of the Sahara desert.
“Kamikaze” delivers a pained but fun and often comic vision of grief and mourning and a gathering narrative of Julie’s battle back to life. It’s also a work of high energy and style, galvanized by time jumps, mobile messages and video footage– such as home videos of her family when she was a child, which Julie watches obsessively.
Produced for HBO Max by Ditte Milsted, whose feature credits include “Rams” and “Valhalla,” through her Copenhagen-based shingle Profile Pictures, “Kamikaze” is also spangled by factoids that Julie drops into her voiceover and which are a hallmark of prominent Norwegian author-scriptwriter Erlend Loe, whose novel the series adapts. If you want to know what’s the longest commercial flight in the world, or the most dangerous continent to fly in, this is the series for you.
Hanne Palmquist, Steve Matthews, Antony Root, Camilla Curtis and Christian Wikander executive produce for HBO Max. Variety talked to screenwriter Johanne Algren (“Holiday”), director Kaspar Munk and Milsted before “Kamikaze” screened on Monday evening at this year’s Series Mania drama series festival as one of the buzz titles in its main competition.
This is a deep-dive into the mourning vortex from the point of view of a protagonist whose identity – a loving daughter – as well as sense of life is obliterated. It’s also highly entertaining, fun. The singularity of the series rests on this balance. Could you comment?
Algren: I agree. This is really what struck me from the beginning when I read the book which is an even more humorist thought rant. The core for me in the adaption was that I completely related to the intense energy of being a young girl who has her world turned upside down and who is lonely in her grief, in that sense I might have put something more serious into the material: I lost my mother when I was 13, left home at 15 and then moved to London at 16, so I could relate to this way of living and moving around in life – and the world, energetically and very lost. I think it is common if you experience loss in those teenage years, moving from child to adult. It becomes a quite absurd mixture of entering your independent life with that strong youthful energy, yet thinking nothing of life and people – because life has betrayed you so hard already.
There’s a sense that Julie’s problem is not only the depth of her love for her family but her own lucidity. That any kind of happiness is seen as a betrayal of or distancing from that love. Again, could you comment?
Algren: If I understand this question correctly it is in the sense that Julie is somehow removing herself, away from herself, when she is letting a sort of ‘happy state’ take over, meeting people, enjoying life, then I think this is true to the sort of grief she is experiencing. It is not really life around you and people’s presence that directly affect you with their wise words etc. It is an inner journey back to feeling life is worth living (and people are actually worth having in your life.) It is the basic existential crisis and question: Is life worth living when things like that can happen?
Much of the emotional thrust of the series is Julie’s battle back to life. The most moving parts of the first four episodes for me are when Julie regains a sense of family – the vid clip of her dog, Nam Seo-ju’s father checking manically the doors of his car to make sure they’re locked…. Could you comment?
Algren: To me it is true feelings kind of ‘hacking’ their way into Julie again, when she’s among people. She tries to keep in control, and keep feelings and the grief at a distance, but it takes so much energy. Then there are the calm moments when she forgets and the emotions catch up…like keeping your head above water for too long.
Julie’s profession as an influencer allows you to adopt her point of view – show her interpretation of events – when otherwise you might have had to use external shots. In the desert, for example, she’s still recording herself rather than being just being observed by the camera. This lends a far larger sense of the intensity of Julie’s feelings… Could you comment?
Munk: Julie’s identity as an influencer gives us a tool we can use further on in the story. The fact that she’s comfortable talking to the camera means we can use this as a kind of diary, but also as way for Julie to connect to the audience. This is used as narrative element, but also as a more aesthetic option to have varying perspective in the episodes.
One hallmark of the series is its episodes’ length: Half an hour. As a director, what we’re the advantages and challenges of working the half-hour format?
Munk: I really like the format. I’ve recently worked on a 1-hour x 20 episode series which has been the dominating format for many years. But I think these new variations are great. I enjoy the different lengths and formats coming out these days resulting in some brilliant mini-series on the market. I find that we get closer to the feature film – making more of a complete piece, an intense and more compressed way of storytelling. This was also one of the main ambitions of mine and what made the show even more attractive as a director.
Another aspect was that the story itself is quite complex as every episode takes place in a new location alongside a strong storyline. This made the shooting more complex, which is a good reason to have one director and one team to make all the episodes.
”Kamikaze” is HBO Max’s first Danish original. What would you say is Danish about it, apart from some of the language and early setting?
Milsted: In one way it’s not Danish at all. One of the great things about working with HBO is that you lean into a more global and international way of thinking when developing. We haven’t been thinking especially local when we developed Kamikaze. We worked with a very universal story that took us places, both character, location, production and structure wise that perhaps naturally took us away from the normal Danish approach to series.
I think the local and Danish touch lies in the humor, the sarcasm, and the directness you can find in our main character Julie.
How did producing with HBO Max open up opportunities – artistic, budgetary, talent-access, whatever – for you?
Milsted: Personally I am very proud that our production company and I as a producer are behind HBO Max’s first Danish original. It has been a huge privilege to work with HBO – creatively you can’t wish for more when developing and producing your dream show. HBO urged us to go wilder, edgier and bolder and this opens up opportunities to create the exact show you wish for … we appreciated this all through the process – from development, to production and post production.
In Denmark there is a tendency that means when producing for a younger audience you have to do it on a very low budget. What made working with HBO Max different is they understood that Kamikaze was fundamentally a drama which also explored universal human themes and emotions that would not only appeal to a younger audience but have broad appeal too. I hope the result is something totally unique in the market, at least I think we succeeded in creating a show with high production values, full of great music and shot in many foreign locations – something working with HBO made possible.