“Kieler Street” begins with the aerial shot of sleepy small rural town Slusvik, on the Norway-Sweden border. The camera pans from a bright blue sky to a pine forest, then quaint slate grey houses nestling by a network of lakes. A guitar twangs placidly over the scene, as if a song is about to start up.
Cut, somewhat violently, interrupting song and general shot, to a car’s back wheel, then its driver, a man, Jonas, telling someone, talking into the car mirror, that he’s left his wallet behind. Except that there’s no one else in the car. Jonas is obviously practicing before telling someone a lie.
That contrast – surface soporific normality versus violence, deception – runs throughout the 10-part series. And violence soon, and increasingly, begins to win out.
The latest drama series from Anagram Norway and TV2, distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment, in “Kieler Street,” Thorborn Harr (“Vikings,” “Stockholm,” “Bel Canto”) plays Jonas, a criminal with blood on his hands who is relocated to the town with the lowest crime rate in the Nordics. “Kieler Street’s” opening stretches have Jonas happily waiting tables, driving through town with his family – girl-friend Elin, a teacher at the local institute and her 15-year-old daughter Sofia. But when Geir, Jonas’ AA sponsor, cracks Jonas’ cover, Jonas knee-jerk reacts, relapsing to his former state.
“At its core, this is a story about how far people are willing to go to protect the life they have chosen,” its makers say in a written description.
Jonas is willing, and has the trained criminal expertise, to go to extremely expedient criminal limits to protect the non-criminal life he has chosen. But so it seems are other people in town.
Man needs governing because he’s basically an animal, a student says in one of Elin’s philosophy classes, summarizing Thomas Hobbes’ theory of social contact. Through its characters arcs, “Kieler Street” asks if that’s right. “Kieler Street”· plays out like a dark thriller on the nature of human essence. Variety talked to Patrik Syversen, the series co-writer and director, and co-writer Jesper Sundnes, as they prepare to bow “Kieler Street” at late January’s Göteborg Film Festival, where it competes in the Nordisk Film & TV Prize competition for best screenwriting.
Violence is never a solution, Jonas tells step-daughter Sophie near the beginning of “Kieler Street.” “Being nice isn’t the answer,” Sophie retorts slightly later. The series plays out like a debate, driven by character development – Can Jonas really change? What kind of a person will Sophie become? – on the century old Thomas Hobbes/John Locke philosophical smackdown on the essence of human nature. Could you comment?
Syversen: In essence, we wanted to tell a story about how people try to reduce the complexities of human nature to certain set character traits in order to make sense of “who” they are. As if there is a clear cut answer to that. “Kieler Street” is about characters who construct a reality for themselves, and stick to the construction instead of embracing introspection and admitting further change.
Sundnes: There’s definitely a philosophical debate at the core of the story: Who the characters choose (and try) to be, clashes with their uncontrollable impulses. I suppose none of us know whether or not we have a defining core, but we try to tell ourselves that we do.
In your director’s comments, Patrik, you say that “Kieler Street” “deconstructs stereotypes” by subverting classic gender-specific expectations: a large part of the male characters react following outmoded images of dominance and masculinity; but some female characters chose to use expectations of them to their advantage. Could you explain?
Syversen: I’m very interested in the roles we assume, and the expectations we think we have to adhere to. “Kieler Street” is in many ways a deconstruction of classic, dated character traits, as people with dark pasts try to emulate a “normal life,” whatever that may be. So there’s a layer of satire here, where a heteronormative life is the guiding star for many characters because they don’t want to stick out too much. Of course, this causes a lot of emotional and existential distress, and through the course of the story (and following seasons) our goal is to deconstruct these ideas and turn them upside down, where no one is just one defined thing.
You’re described, Jesper, as a comedy writer/actor, though you’ve directed and done other work. Was your role in any way to inject comedy into the series? And how did you divide the work with Patrik and the other writer, Stig Frode Henriksen, co-scribe of “Dead Snow”?
Sundnes: Comedy is certainly something I’ve had more experience in doing than drama, but I don’t think any of us have ever tried to purposefully “inject” comedy into “Kieler Street.” Comedy is more of a natural element that occurs along the way, as we try to create a nuanced portrayal of the absurdities of life.
Syversen: Our individual roles as writers within our constellation have never been that clear-cut, as our process is more like a continuous dialogue, where especially Patrik and I keep trying to challenge and surprise each other. Our writing process is pretty much that the three of us meet up and talk about what would make an interesting character, episode or season arc, and then Patrik and I doing most of the physical writing through rapid mail correspondence.
This is a big Scandinavian series, produced at Anagram Norway by Anne Kobjørnsen, executive producer of Netflix’s first foreign-language series, “Lilyhammer,” and Ole Marius Araldsen, showrunner of “Eyewitness” and “Maniac,” co-starring Intl. Emmy-award winning Anneke von der Lippe (“Eyewitness”) and Nicolai Cleve Broch (“Acquitted”). To what extent was it conceived and written with one eye on the international market?
Sundnes: There was never any goal to make the series “big” or “international,” but we’ve always felt that the themes are universal and could apply to any society where the conformities of the middle class dominate.
Syversen: Our goal was to take something high concept and ground it as much as possible. Make it intimate and relatable but with a fleshed out world where all the characters get their moment to shine. With an inhabited world comes a lot of characters, and the casting was informed by this. So we found our favorite people, and in some instances even wrote parts for them. Some of them have international appeal, but that was never the reason they were cast.
It’s interesting to see that even as you present Season 1 you have Season 2 at least solidly sketched out. Was this because the series was always planned as more than one season, in that the answer to the question of whether people can really change has to be explored through more than one person. Or is this also a growing industry need since audiences are just not willing to wait so long between one season and another?
Syversen: We always planned more than one season, and we know where we want to go with the story. As you say, in order to tackle the themes properly, one needs to start small and slowly expand the points of view, and one can’t do that in ten episodes without rushing it.
Sundnes: This is a slow-build story, with occasional outbursts of sudden violence, and it takes a certain overall rhythm to make that work. We’re still awaiting word from the network on Season 2, but we are ready to go, so the time between seasons depends on forces beyond us creators.
I feel that what you’re both really interested in is character. So after Ep. 1, with its shock, you devote Ep. 2 to exploring in far more depth Jonas’ attempt to break with his past, how he does that and his deep desire to do so. Is this one of the things you love about series, that you have the time to do so, at some length, with some depth.
Syversen: It was very important for us to go in the direction of character after episode one. The “easy” thing would be to stick with predictable plot points and paint by numbers challenges, but that wouldn’t necessarily have expanded upon the themes of the story. So it was always a conscious choice to start with a bang, and follow it up with something low-key and mundane, in order to show all the trivial consequences something dramatic can have.
Sundnes: A second episode tends to pinpoint what the storytellers are really interested in exploring, and our focal point is characters and not crime plots.
You’re best known, Patrik, for your genre films. Do you think you bring a different directorial style to “Kieler Street,” given its television?
Syversen: My last two features were both indie dramas that toy with genre elements, and if I were to choose, that’s where my heart lies. I love subverting expectations and I’ve always considered genres as a tool to tell stories, not a goal in itself. So I approached “Kieler Street” like I did my other films: Focus on themes, character moments and experiment with subversion, with an intimate, yet cinematic style. Andreas Johannessen, our DP, has shot three features with me before this series, so this is very much an expansion of our visual language. It being television didn’t affect how we approached it. The story is always in charge of our choices.
What are you working on now?
Syversen: Jesper and I are constantly throwing ideas around for the coming seasons of “Kieler Street.” The outlines for the episodes are in place, and we’re ready to build on that.
Sundnes: The two of us are also writing a new series for Anagram, as well as developing new concepts.