As his first English-language series Marcella comes out on DVD, we spoke to Swedish screenwriter and novelist Hans Rosenfeldt about the writing process, the differences between British and Swedish television production, and the future of his hugely acclaimed home-grown crime drama, The Bridge…
What did you find most appealing about Marcella when you first heard the pitch?
Well, I was pitched the idea by Nicola Larder (Marcella’s co-creator and executive producer). We met in Italy and were talking about The Bridge, and she actually pitched me an idea about this female detective being left by her husband and bringing back an old case. I really liked that because it sounded like something I could probably work with. The opportunity to work abroad was what really attracted me, I have to say.
Are you a fan of British crime dramas, then?
I can’t get to see all of them, but I do enjoy British TV. I mean, we probably get the best over here. I also think that perhaps my way of storytelling is a little different from what you usually see in British drama. What ITV really wanted was a kind of ‘Nordic noir’ story, but British and set in London, and not just a translation of a Nordic show. That was the challenge for me – could I do that in London, as I do in Sweden?
From a Swedish perspective, were there any aspects of British culture that struck you as particularly distinctive and worth bringing out in the scripts?
Not really – I think it would be too much to say that I picked up on British culture enough to have a view about it. The work itself was very much as it is in Sweden in terms of the writing process. The only thing I would say is that certain things that wouldn’t have been raised in Sweden were being talked about more in England than I thought they would be. For example, we didn’t kill a dog, even though people seem to think that! The dummy dog, that we actually showed two seconds of… there was a reaction to that, that I don’t think we would have had in Sweden.
They do say we’re a nation of animal lovers…
(Laughs) These are small things, but there’s always a little doubt. I think perhaps that the press focused a lot on Anna (Friel). There was a lot of talk about her looks, about whether or not she would be more or less undressed… I think that’s also perhaps a cultural difference. There were times when I wrote something where they (the British writers) would say ‘We don’t do this in Britain’, or ‘We don’t have this anymore’, or something like that. There were just small things – there was no culture clash.
Nicola Larder has said that you were surprised by the idea of a lodger renting a room in someone’s house, which doesn’t happen in Sweden.
No, we don’t have that. It would raise eyebrows here if we brought characters into a show and they had lodgers – it would be very, very strange!
You wrote the scripts in Swedish and then they were translated into English, is that correct?
We did that with the first three, and then I had episode writers on episodes four to six (co-writers Marston Bloom, Ben Harris and Mark Greig) who wrote in English. Actually, at the end, the production had kind of eaten up the time to translate things so then I wrote them in English directly, and somebody had to correct all the errors.
I’m sure there weren’t very many! Like most Scandinavians, your English is perfect.
Well, it helps that we subtitle everything – we don’t dub anything. We listen to English from when we’re born!
We haven’t always had the chance to see great international shows here in Britain, but BBC Four has changed that in recent years. It’s a very welcome development.
Yeah, so I understand – they’ve really created a niche for themselves in showing programmes in foreign languages.
Did you find the way TV shows are produced inBritain to be very different from the Swedish system?
No, I think it’s basically the same, actually. The writing system was very much the same. We went to the broadcaster, they gave us notes, we had our meetings with directors and production – what we can do, what we can’t do. My end of the work was very similar to what I do in Sweden, but I think you have a bigger scale of production in Britain. We don’t move around that much, we don’t have these trailers on set. We start at our headquarters every morning and then find out where we’re supposed to be, but we don’t bring the cars and wardrobe and make-up and everything. There’s a bigger scale to everything, basically. But then I came into the editing room at the end and they’re pretty much the same as inSweden, so I felt very much at home.
Did you spend a lot of time on the set of Marcella?
I was able to visit the set two or three times. I worked the same way with Marcella as I do with The Bridge, so when they shoot the first block, I write the second block. I didn’t really have the time to be on set, and quite, frankly, I don’t think anybody really wants me there! (Laughs) They have the director, they have the producer, they have everything they need, so I shouldn’t meddle with that. I’m not an ‘on set’, hands-on kind of guy. It’s a bit difficult because sometimes they have new ideas and I’m there and they want to try something new, but they think, ‘Oh, we can’t do that’, because I’m there. So far, I’ve done three series of The Bridge and one series of Marcella and me not being on set has worked really well, so I think I’m going to stay that way.
I noticed with Marcella that there was a visual focus on iconic London landmarks whereas with The Bridge, you seemed to be trying to blur the differences between Copenhagen and Malmö.London almost seemed to function as a ‘character’ in its own right in Marcella.
Yeah, we wanted that, and we said so really early. I’m not very good on visuals, and I’m not the one bringing visual ideas into the series I work on. I’ve been very fortunate to work with good directors and location managers. Very early on, we said that we were going to bring in the strands with the construction business and the Gibsons, and the iconic landmarks of London today seem to be fairly new. They’re all skyscrapers, like the Shard and the Gherkin, so if we’re showing contemporary London then I think we have to show them. I think part of the fun of the show was that we did that, but we also went down to very small places that could be pretty much anywhere, like the nightclub under the railway bridge. As you say, in The Bridge we very deliberately avoid the landmarks if we can, so we tried pretty much everything not to make it aBritishBridge! The Bridge is very bleak, it’s very grey and cold. We don’t have many buildings from before the 1950s in it. We wanted to do something more colourful and vibrant with Marcella, becauseLondon is a more colourful and vibrant city, I think.
That choice really came across on the screen. Will there be more Marcella?
I don’t know. I’ve been away for a month, and I haven’t really spoken to Tony (Wood, executive producer), so I don’t really know how the talks on that are going.
Marcella Backland and The Bridge’s Saga Norén are both strong, compelling female characters. You’ve also created a troubled male criminal profiler, Sebastian Bergman (played by Rolf Lassgård in the eponymous TV show based on two of the novels Rosenfeldt co-writes with Michael Hjorth, which was broadcast in the UK on BBC Four in 2012). Here in the UK, we’ve really appreciated the depth and complexity of the female protagonists in your shows, which can sometimes be lacking in English-language series. Does your writing process differ at all when you write for them, or is it more a case of getting down to the psychological complexity unique to each character, regardless of gender?
I’d say it’s about getting down to the psychology of the character, more than whether I’m thinking about whether it’s a male or female character – it’s just trying to create as interesting a character as possible. I enjoy writing about female characters more than I do male characters, for some reason. I think that’s part of me being around more women. The majority of my friends are female, and the people I surround myself with are 80% female. It’s really just about making him or her as interesting as possible.
There’s been a very positive response to the depiction of Saga as an autistic woman. I know that’s a facet of the character that wasn’t originally intended and has developed gradually due to Sofia Helin’s incredible performance in the role, but have you become aware of Saga’s reception by autistic people?
Yes, we have. I don’t get that much of it, just some comments in articles or on television, but Sofia has had quite a lot of very personal letters about how thankful people are to see an autistic person on screen. 90% of the feedback we get is positive and 10% don’t really like what we’re doing with that character. They think we’re not actually helping anything, quite the opposite, but they are in a minority, I have to say, so I believe we’re doing something right.
I’d say you all deserve immense credit for what is a nuanced and sensitive portrayal. The discussion I’ve seen has been overwhelmingly positive.
We’re really, really happy about that, because the last thing we want to do is to offend people just to make a good TV character. As I say, 90% is positive, at least of the feedback I get.
Series three of The Bridge was absolutely fantastic. Is a fourth series definitely happening?
We haven’t got the final go-ahead yet, but we are writing it at the moment. I’d say we’re coming back! It’s really just administration now, getting the proper go-ahead, but we’re working on it as if we have it. I think we’ll get it.
That’s great news. I hear that a murder during the Halloween festivities inDenmark will be the starting point for the new story… (Rosenfeldt mentioned this on the Swedish podcast TV med Luuk last month.)
I think that’s actually changed now. We had a script meeting last week, and I think we just threw that out. (Laughs)
Well, we’ll be very excited to see what you do come up with!
Yeah, I think we’ve changed that to something better.
The relationship between Saga and her new Danish partner Henrik Sabroe was a unforgettable element of series three, and was all the more impressive an achievement given that the series had to be rewritten quickly following the departure of Kim Bodnia, who played Martin Rohde in the first two series. Is there any chance that we’ll ever see Martin again, or is that door very much closed now?
It’s not very much closed – he’s not in the storyline as of now, but that is something that’s constantly changing. If we think it would be really nice to have Martin in this story, then we will probably approach him. We will not bring him back just for nostalgia. We need him to really advance our story, but never say never. We’re still friends. As it is now, though, he’s not in. That might change, just like the Halloween thing.
Series three worked incredibly well, and Thure Lindhardt’s made an indelible impression as Henrik. If Martin had been present in that series, would we still have met Henrik in some guise as Saga’s personal life was explored in greater depth?
That character was very much a reaction to the absence of Martin. We didn’t have that storyline with a new, deeper relationship for Saga until Kim said he was out, so that was very much due to that. That was something we had to come up with. I’m really happy that it worked so well, and it was kind of a blessing in disguise because we had to think about what The Bridge was really about. We could rely on a lot of things with Martin: elevator scenes and car scenes and a certain kind of relationship. We didn’t have that anymore, and we had to up our game and say ‘We know we don’t have that, what do we do instead?’ That was really good for us. We couldn’t fall back on anything, so it was very helpful.
Hans Rosenfeldt, thank you very much!
Marcella arrives on digital download and DVD on 20th June, 2016 from Universal Pictures (UK).