Distributed by ITV Studios, “Blackwater,” the new banner series from Apple Tree producer Piv Bernth – behind iconic Scandinavian series “The Killing,” “The Bridge” and “Borgen” – opens in premonitory mode with the camera panning away from a falcon to take in the Lobber River’s white water and churning slate grey currents as a supernatural horror-movie chant bleeds into the soundtrack.
The foreboding anticipates a double murder on the river’s banks and conveys a broader sense sluicing the series of the menace of nature itself – both the chilling woods around Blackwater, a village in mid-Sweden, and latent human brutality.
In 1973, on Midsummer’s Eve, Annie, a young in-love schoolteacher who has just arrived in the area, discovers the bodies of two murdered tourists on the banks of the river. Glimpsing a man running away from the crime scene, she will live in fear for the next 20 years, sleeping with a shotgun beside her bed. The murder. moreover, entwines her life and daughter Mía’s with the local doctor’s, Birger Torbjörnsson, and that of Johan Brandberg. A teen in 1973, having been dumped down a well by his half-brothers, Johan flees their bullying for Norway, only to return in 1991.
This is not only a suspense-powered murder mystery but the portrait of a community fighting oblivion, whether the impunity of murders, or older communities and ways of life dying out, or the fading of memory.
Shuttling in flashback between 1991 and 1973, complex and multi-layered, taking the measure of multiple characters, their brief joys, tragedy and fading, and packing a trenchant take on genre violence, “Blackwater” bowed Jan. 13 on SVT Play and Jan. 15 on SVT 1.
Made for public broadcast group SVT, “Blackwater” is a flagship title from Danish production co Apple Tree Productions, an ITV Studios company co-founded in 2017 by ex DR exec Piv Bernth, producer of “The Killing,” exec producer on “The Bridge” and DR commissioner for “Borgen.” Mikael Marcimain (“Call Girl,” “Gentlemen”) directs.
Variety talked to script writers, Maren Louise Käehne (“Queen of Hearts”) and Karin Arrhenius (“Rebecka Martinsson”) in the run-up to Sweden’s Göteborg Festival, where “Blackwater” competes for the 2023 Nordisk Film & TV Fond Prize.
From the opening shot of a turbulent river and soundtrack dipping into supernatural chant, there’s a sense of nature as chilling, sinister, ominous. Could you comment?
Karin Arrhenius : It’s an adequate opening I think. The grey sky, the screaming bird, the violent water – it shows nature’s powers and somehow its indifference towards us. In this opening shot we see the wild. We may think that we stand above nature, that we have cultivated and civilized the world, but the wild is still out there. And it plays a big part in the story.
Memories may be cherished but false. The characters of 1973 and ways of life they embody are dying out by 1991. This seems from the first two episodes to be a portrait of a community fighting oblivion as well as a murder mystery.
Arrhenius: Yes it’s a community fighting oblivion and dying out. You can read through the characters lives in the 1991 timeline how things have faded and disappeared for them. A growing emptiness around them, emotionally and also physically with the deforestation that people in the 1973 timeline protested against. It’s as if the habitat for their lives has shrunken on both levels.
When adapting Kerstin Ekman’s “Blackwater,” regarded as her masterpiece, were there elements you thought you had to leave out or chose to play up?
Arrhenius: Of course you always have to do this to some extent. But maybe not so much as one could think here. I think we wanted to stay as close to Ekman’s elements and world as possible. Some things are pretty abstract and taken down but I hope you can still sense them in the story.
Did you set yourself any guidelines when flashing back from present to past?
Maren Louise Käehne: I didn’t work with specific rules or guidelines for the transition between the two timelines. My method is more intuitive. I tend to look for emotional bridges in the characters and tonal similarities or juxtapositions that serve the dramatic purpose of the story.
Arrhenius: Guidelines, primarily not to make them too many, but to keep it as whole as possible. But going back and forth when it is emotionally visually and story-wise relevant. But it’s always a bit of a challenge with flashing [back and forward] in time.
How did you write together?
Louise Käehne: We didn’t, is the short answer. I approached Anna Croneman at SVT back in 2017 and proposed we adapt Kerstin Ekman’s novel into a 6-part series. Anna warned me that several people had tried to obtain the rights over the years with no luck. Fortunately, Kerstin took a liking to my initial take on the series and with Piv Bernth onboard as producer we managed to secure the rights and develop the series to a greenlight with SVT.
When production was postponed due to COVID and collided with another series I had already signed on to do and unexpected events prevented Pernilla August from directing the series as initially planned, Karin and Mikael Marcimain took over. So the final scripts and vision for the series is the result of a close collaboration between Karin and Mikael.
Did you know from when you were writing that Pernilla August would play Annie?
Louise Käehne: The idea to cast Pernilla August as Annie and Pernilla’s daughters Asta and Alba as respectively young Annie and Annie’s daughter Mia was a dream of mine from the outset, so, yes, I have definitely been writing with them in mind. I am only happy that Mikael also seemed to take a liking to that idea in his casting of the series.