Sky Atlantic’s Fortitude, showing now on Thursday nights at 9pm, is a thriller, a mystery and an exploration of what can happen when murder takes place where you least expect it. Its cast, including Michael Gambon, Stanley Tucci and Sofie Grabol, is no less impressive than its otherworldly Nordic backdrop.
We spoke to executive producer Patrick Spence about filming in Norway, the prospect of British writers’ rooms and why Fortitude is not a frozen western…
I think that what’s interesting about the show is the relationship between landscape and character. You’ve made an effort to film in Iceland, with the incredible scenery that, for the fictional town at least, masks a real sense of danger. The landscape is beautiful, but the environment can kill you. Was that a deliberate choice?
Very much so. You’re supposed to feel that, for reasons that won’t become apparent until later episodes, there is something very wrong in the world of Fortitude. The science in the show is very real and the environment is clearly unsettled in a way that will slowly become clear. So it should feel quite threatening. Incredibly beautiful, very fragile and quite threatening, all at the same time.
It is unsettling and that’s already starting to come out. I think what’s interesting is the character of Dan Anderssen. Richard Dormer has described him as ‘a good man who has had to do bad things’. There’s a sense that he’s an example of the sheriff archetype: a masculine response to the remoteness and danger in the environment, making the show something of a frozen Western. Would you agree with that?
We’ve been called ‘Scandi-noir’ a ‘frozen Western’. I wouldn’t call it a frozen Western but I would absolutely say that Dan Anderssen is inspired by, and should evoke, the notion of the sheriff. There are strong western themes in the show. It’s a frontier town and I would prefer to think about it that way. People choose to live there because they’re on the edge of the world and we’ve called him a sheriff for a reason, yeah.
He makes a strong contrast with DCI Morton, doesn’t he? I’ve seen up to the second episode where they have that bonding moment but they’ve got very different approaches. Is that a pattern that’s being set up?
Those are the characters that Simon [Donald, writer] has created. They’re two policemen with very different world outlooks, so their personalities and their different ways of working will clash, undoubtedly.
Simon’s obviously in charge of the writing of it, but there are five writers on the show, aren’t there?
Tom [Butterworth] and Chris [Hurford] are a writing pair, Stephen Brady, Ben Richards and Simon. Is that five? Yeah.
So is it a writers’ room set-up then, as they have in the US, or is it a different system that you’ve got going?
The writers’ room in the States is a very long-established model that involves five or sometimes more writers being paid a salary to work full-time on the show for as many months as it takes, I think it must take six or seven months. We haven’t followed that model because we simply don’t have that kind of budget. I would love to try that model one day.
What we had was five writers that we sat in a room for a long as we could and they went off and wrote individual episodes. So it’s a slightly different system. In America you have all of them effectively writing episodes together, beating the stories out until one person goes off and writes the dialogue, usually in a week or two. It’s closer to the American model of the writers’ room, and it’s as close as I’ve ever come on a show, but we were only together in the writers’ room for maybe two and a half months. We experimented with it, I would love to do it again but it’s quite a thing to pay five or six people to work full time for nearly a year to then literally write the scripts together. I think in this country we’re still a little way off that model, for a variety of different reasons.
A lot of them are, I suppose, budgetary aren’t they?
Yes, very much so. And also cultural. In a writers’ room in the States you will be completely part of the team and completely serving the vision of one person. I think that we haven’t grown a writing community and an editing community in that way so, culturally it would take a bit more time I think before writers were able to completely subsume themselves in that way to the team writing process. I’m sure there’s a willingness out there, it’s just a case of finding the right ones.
And what about Fortitude itself? I really don’t want you to spoil me because I’m enjoying it as a viewer as well as a reviewer, but are we looking at a multi-season prospect or is it very much a self-contained story?
Both are true. It’s a self-contained story that comes to an end. Every question that you have will be answered, I hope. It’s not like Lost, where at the end you’ll discover there were many strands that no one knew where they were going. But yes, we’d very much like to come back and do more stories set in that town and in that community but this one will come to an end. There is a very particular story that’s being told that has an end.
What was it like getting the international cast together, was that a particular challenge? We’ve got quite a few nationalities represented across languages in some cases.
It was a complete privilege and a thrilling experience. The town’s that we’d researched up in the Arctic were all… Fortitude is modelled on those towns that we’d researched in the Arctic, I suppose is the best way of saying it. We found real-life models where the town is forty percent Scandinavian and sixty percent international. That was true to life so we were able to create characters that felt authentic and yet international at the same time. So then, being able to cast from that variety of nationalities was just a wonderful experience. We had a brilliant casting director and all of us. And actually it was the easiest part of the process. There were were very, very hard parts to making this show but casting it was relatively easy because, with two or three exceptions we got our first choice for the first thirteen main parts that we offered. A momentum was created the moment that Michael Gambon said yes it became easier for actors who had real status to join an ensemble in the way that Michael had done.
He’s quite an ambassador to have, isn’t he?
Yeah, he’s a fantastic ambassador.
So what were the hard parts?
Shooting without snow. It’s a long period of time to work, frankly in production to shoot for six months, and then, when we got to Iceland there was no snow so the entire production was affected by that. It meant moving resources around and changing things last minute to enable resources to be shifted so that we could create the world with that snow. That was no small feat and we were very grateful to our production designer who knew what she was doing and a local crew who were just completely brilliant. I still feel sick at the thought of what everyone had to go through.
So it’s the landscape again, isn’t it? It’s an amazing how it’s an element in the storyline but also in your production
I’d absolutely go back to film there and take the risk that the same things would happen because you couldn’t film Fortitude without that landscape. It’s too magnificent for the story as well as visually to look at.
Patrick Spence, thank you very much!
Read more about Fortitude on Den of Geek here
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