Soren Sveistrup interview: The Killing, Sarah Lund, Batman, & more
Just two episodes from The Killing's last episode, James chats to creator Søren Sveistrup about Sarah Lund, and making subtitles cool...
Contains mild spoilers for The Killing I - III.
The Killing III is rapidly approaching its grand finale, after which the world will say goodbye to Detective Inspector Sarah Lund once and for all. We spoke to creator and showrunner Søren Sveistrup on a snowy December morning in Copenhagen to talk about Denmark’s greatest gift to crime drama...
I’d like to start by asking you about the current series of The Killing. We’ve seen six out of the ten episodes so far in the U.K. How long after the events of series two does this one takes place?
Two years; actually it takes place now. Series two took place in 2009 so it’s the years that have passed.
I was asking because the character of Sarah Lund seems almost like a new woman in the first episode compared to where we left her at the conclusion of the second series. It seems like she’s finally letting her guard down and showing a much more emotional side?
It’s a reaction to the current state of affairs with the financial crisis. She’s looking after herself now. She’s not bothered so much with the criminals and society anymore; she’s looking out for number one. She feels that she’s paid her dues and is looking for a more comfortable life. It’s something that happens when financial crisis hits us. You can’t save the world so you try to look after yourself and those closest to you.
She’s done twenty five years in the police so she wants something more comfortable; a desk job. Twenty five years means something to someone, you become more immune to the feelings of the work so I thought that would be a good starting point for her.
Did you ever envisage The Killing as a trilogy of sorts, showing the journey of the Sarah Lund character to this point?
You could say that, because she starts series one with a very normal dream of moving away with a husband, but then throughout series one and two she starts to lose things. Her story can be thought very much as a Job story, like in the Bible. When we meet her in the beginning of series three she is very isolated and her dilemma is to whether or not she should continue to look after society or herself now up until the end of the season.
The pace of series three seems quite relentless. As an audience, we feel like we barely have time to catch our breath. Did you consider making this another twenty-episode series?
I liked the series we did in twenty episodes but this time the story fitted better into ten. The idea I had could be told better with ten episodes, rather than twenty, but I kind of like it when the pace is so fast. It’s very concentrated, you don’t have time to go for coffee, I like it to be intense. The Killing isn’t meant to be something you could watch while doing other things. I’m quite happy when you say that about the pace, though I could actually have used two more episodes in this series.
I like to have the pace and build the suspense but also to give the audience time to reflect on what’s happening, it’s getting the rhythm right for the show.
There’s been an increase of scenes featuring darkened rooms and putting the characters in danger. Did you feel like you had to make the threat bigger this series?
In any crime story, you show the audience a body and immediately everyone is wondering who the killer is, so in this third series I was really thinking about the perpetrator being very intelligent and very smart and they have to be a suitably strong opponent for Lund, otherwise the whole idea of the third series wouldn’t match the audience's expectations.
I think that has definitely come across, particularly at then beginning of episode five with the scene tailing the lorry to the bridge. The perpetrator seemed highly organised and one step ahead. They seem extremely deadly.
Yes, on the one hand I really like the perpetrator to have this god-like, devil-like attitude; to know everything. It makes it all the more scary if somebody is able to think ahead of us and on the other hand you have to keep it realistic too.
It works better if we don’t see too much of the perpetrator as then it’s all in the audience's mind. If I’m not shown too much then my own fears come through. If I’m watching a thriller then I can imagine much more scary stuff if the writer or director doesn’t show it to me. It’s the form of storytelling for this genre and that’s why we use the shadows and dark. It’s to get questions forming about the perpetrator; why are they here? What do they want? I’m really just writing my own neurosis – what might happen to me if I went down into my own dark basement? what might I find there?
I’d like to ask you now about the Sarah Lund character if I may. You’d worked with Sofie Gråbøl before on previous shows so you’d known her for a long time and created the character together. Where did the roots of Lund come from?
Sofie and I knew that we wanted to work together on The Killing after we did a comedy show, Nicolaj and Julie, which went well, so I had carte blanche to do whatever I liked next. I knew I wanted to do something more sinister with her in the lead role. Nicolaj and Julie was a comedy about a divorce which dealt with a lot private stuff so I knew I didn’t want to repeat that. I wanted to have a heroine who didn’t talk about her private life all the time.
Sofie liked that idea too so early on we decided that if there was ever an incident that arose in Lund’s private life she wouldn’t be able to cope with or talk about it. She would be socially handicapped. It let me do something more sinister and make it more of a mystery rather than focussing on that part of the character.
Sometimes you see shows and they have to be fifty percent personal stuff and fifty percent the crime stuff, and that didn’t work for me, this character had to be all in. Sofie has a grand talent for comedy so we used some of that to create the social handicaps of the character and I brought my love of spaghetti westerns and Clint Eastwood to it and she liked that too, Lund became almost more man than woman in her behaviour. A lot of it was down to Sofie’s ability to do the character so well.
Lund certainly seems to have her fair share of male admirers – do you think she is a woman that women want to be and men want to be with?
Well she’s strong and resourceful, and she has abilities that you and I don’t have. She is attractive to men. I can write lots of sinister stuff for Sarah Lund but when Sofie plays it, it’s very sympathetic. You can watch her with sympathy. Sofie has a glow about her. I can write almost anything for her and she will still glow and the audience will still be attracted to her. And that’s really great because I can make her rude and do what I want with her and Sofie can still make it sympathetic and that’s really a miracle.
You could ask me why I didn’t just pick a man as the lead if I wanted a strong, silent type, but the whole analogy for the thriller genre is that it’s much more dangerous to send a female character down into the basement, so it’s really making it better for the audience.
Looking back to season one of The Killing, when we first met Sarah Lund she was on the verge of moving to Sweden before she got wrapped up in the case. It seemed to me that she had been waiting for something like this to come along and subconsciously sabotage her relationship?
The Killing is really a destiny drama. When we meet these people in the first episodes that have nothing in common but as the series continues they are drawn together in the same damnation.
Sometimes you can’t change what you are and Sarah Lund has tried to so hard to change. She knows that she is good at one thing really but sometimes she feels the urge to do something else. The question really is what is her destiny?, and that’s really the question being answered in series three. The main question may be whodunnit, but for me the question has always been what was going to happen to Sarah Lund? What would be her destiny?
So you are right when you say that she was almost waiting for something to happen. It’s like feeling a finger on your shoulder and you know something isn’t entirely right.
Staying with season one, one of my favourite characters was Lund’s partner, Detective Inspector Jan Meyer. It really felt like you could identify with him and his frustration with Lund at times. Do you feel it’s important for the Lund character to have these characters to anchor her down and the audience to relate to?
Definitely, because she doesn’t really talk much. She has to have these characters around her to push her into saying anything. The partner role is very important as it generates some pressure on Lund and pushes her in other directions. If she was just alone she would be speechless. And it’s to show her annoyance with other people. She is always annoyed when the phone rings and that’s part of the game: to annoy Lund.
Season two was a completely different kind of case. Was it a conscious decision to move away from the theme of family and have Lund tackle something not so personal to bring her back out of her shell?
Yes, at the beginning she was very insecure and had lost everything that meant something to her. For me the second series was very much a come back to get her on her feet again. The whole show was about getting some kind of resolution for her and for her to believe she was strong again. That was really what she was conveying when she walked down the stairs past Lennart Brix at the end of the series, looking at him saying “I can do this, don’t tell me I can’t, I know I’m good”.
We’ve seen an emergence of darker material out of America recently, in particular the Chris Nolan Batman films. Is there a character like that you would like to write for in the future, that you give a The Killing spin on?
I would love to write Batman if anybody asked me. I like the sinister stuff in Batman and Gotham City. I think they’d much rather call somebody in Los Angeles to do it than me, but they are welcome to call.
The Killing has transformed the idea of Saturday night TV in the UK. People who’ve never watched subtitled programmes before are addicted. How does it feel to have made subtitles cool in the UK.?
I’m very proud if that’s true. It’s strange for us because we’re so used to subtitles so if this is some kind of export for the Danish language then maybe one day I’ll go to London and get to order in Danish. I don’t know if we’ll get there but I’m very proud. It was a big deal for me to learn that it’s made such an impact in the UK.
Søren Sveistrup thank you very much!
The Killing Series III is released on DVD on the 17th of December, The Killing Trilogy (feat. series 1-3) is released on both Blu-ray & DVD on the same day.
Read our reviews of The Killing III, here.
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