Several shades darker than any other Nordic Noir series to hit our screens Case is a game-changing psychological drama that shakes up the genre. Risk-taking and uncompromising, it is a self-contained spin-off from the legal drama The Court.
Director Baldvin Z generously agreed to meet in Reykjavik and spend a morning talking about the series.
An acclaimed director (Jitters, Life in a Fishbowl) Baldvin Z has been producing films since the age of 11. He scripted and produced the black comedy series Hæ Gosi. Baldvin recently directed three episodes of Trapped.
What attracted you to Case?
‘In the beginning I got the the first three episodes of the scripts. I read through it and I had recently watched Broadchurch. I liked Broadchurch a lot and when I was reading through Case, I thought to myself because they had changed the core elements of the TV series it was a court drama and I didn’t like that. I didn’t want to do a TV series like that but they said “we are changing a lot so please read it.” And when I started to read it there was something about the structure of the scripts that reminded me of Broadchurch. So I thought to myself wow, maybe we have a TV series there which has this real character driven drama for us to to do because we haven’t done a lot of it here in Iceland. And then when all the elements came into it about the young girls, because I’m working on a film for next year which is a film about girls who are using drugs and they are trafficking here in Iceland. It’s something that we haven’t done a film about here in Iceland at least. So it’s touched a few elements in my film also. So it somehow all of my interests, for now, what I’m interested in exactly at this moment we’re in this TV series so I thought to myself OK I have to do this. I like the style and i like the structure. When i read it through the whole nine episodes we did a lot of changes. We actually rewrote the last three episodes before shooting. I felt like we were going away from what we began with and i want to keep that drama through the whole TV series. Also I like stories from Reykjavik. I like dark stories and as you can see in my project there’s not a lot of sheep, or horses or mountains or anything. So it’s the dark side of Iceland.’
How hard was it for the actors to shake off those characters at the end of the day and how hard was it for you to step away?
‘When you go to these dark, dark alleys of life it can be really hard to just go home and eat food with your children because you know that what is around the corner for them is these things. This is happening all over. So it can be very hard but I think we work like like cops and everybody does who are working in this environment. You start to create this very strange humour around your world so somehow we laugh through this in some strange particular way just to manage to create these things. So. like you know, if you work with cops for a couple of days you see this sarcastic, dark humour they have and this is something that we developed when we realised when we are in this dark project. But I know for like instance Magnus who plays Logi it was very hard for him. He was there for like four months and the day he stopped shooting he went home shaved his head, shaved his beard and he just came to the wrap party so happy. He got rid of him. I think everybody has their own way of dealing with it.’
Readers might not be aware that this is a spin-off from another series called The Court. It’s self-contained. At the end of The Court Magnus’ character was in a comfortable place. This time we meet him he’s instantly in a very dark place. How hard was it or was it hard to persuade him to take this new very intense approach?
‘No, it wasn’t so hard. I created a little story between those two series for Magnus and for those characters who crossover into this new series and after I have explained what happened in those six years they related to it very instantly. They went OK so he fucked everything up, he has been drinking for three-four years and blah blah blah blah. The channel wanted to do a third season but we wanted to create a new TV series and that’s the reason this conflict came up so we needed we need to do a third season of The Court. We ended up doing this spinoff. So i was forced to create this six year story. And you can only see it in the child of Brynhildr. In the second episode he wakes up at her home and it comes out her child is there. And he’s like six years old and that’s the child who was born at the end of the second season. So that’s how we explain how far away. The other season was.’
If Case goes to a second season will we get more hints about those lost years?
‘Yeah more and more I think. Definitely. We did it in a very short way when Logi meets the old lawyer, Benedikt, once in the hallway. He does this monologue about how he fucked everything up and how he took Brynhildr into his office. That’s the only thing we hear about those six years. I think yes we should definitely dig deeper into those six years.’
This is a game changer series. It’s a game changer for Sagafilm, it’s a game changer for Icelandic TV. It’s going to raise the profile. It’s coming hot on the heels of Trapped so there’s already international interest. Whereas Trapped had a more global feel to it the narrative could take place as it is going to take place in America because of the remake. Whereas Case was almost a case of now you’ve seen that this is what we can do on our own terms. Are you excited about the fact that your profile is going to raise over the next couple of years as the series is seen in Germany, France, UK, America?
‘Of course I’m excited about it. Ultimately because I’m taking a step now and I’m developing a new TV series with one of the scriptwriters of Case. So we are doing our own TV show now. Having been a part of Trapped, doing this… This is somehow all falling into my lap. This is great. I’m very excited. It’s a privilege to be able to do TV and films. I can’t think of anything better as a filmmaker.’
There used to be snobbery about TV. Film directors wouldn’t work in TV. Now if anything it seems to be the other way round. The smartest stuff at the moment is on TV. We’re living in a golden age..
‘Of TV. Yeah, definitely.’
It’s come from two directions. It’s come from American companies like HBO and also the Nordic countries. They’ve shown the power of the medium. That you can tell really great stories…
‘Yeah definitely. And hopefully, I really hope that I will get a chance to direct TV series abroad someday. Scandinavia or U.S. I would like to try it to go into the big monster of TV making. It would probably be very fun. Why bother if you don’t want to take steps and challenge yourself? Definitely.’
In Iceland a limited number of films get produced each year. Similarly, a very limited number of TV series due to funding. Now there is a greater move towards attracting investment from overseas. That could lead to more homegrown content being produced.
‘Yeah and there is one other thing happening also because there’s a lot of people here in Iceland who has a lot of money and. I know that they are interested now also in this field of business because what Trapped did for us is that business people here in Iceland are now looking into TV and film and thinking OK is there a chance here to to gain some money off this? I think what will be the biggest change here now for us is that investors in Iceland are ready to take a look at this which is really good so our bankers will hopefully invest money in TV and film here in Iceland.’
Might that lead to only certain types of films and TV series being financed?
‘It could be, it could be but what is happening now in Iceland I think is something that because we are a small nation and we are few, like sixteen or seventeen years ago Iceland’s music sort of grew up and we became part of the world. We suddenly found out that we can do it like others. And I think we are at this moment in filmmaking also. Definitely. We are realizing we can be part of the world and I think we realize that if we were to want to do that we need more money to create our stuff. We need more time and we need more people. So whatever the money comes from, if it’s the the investors or abroad, it’s just good for the industry. But I hope it won’t lead to that we only do like very commercial stuff and stuff like that. I hope there will be room for a series like Case.’
Iceland is getting increased investment at the moment. One problem I’m aware of is a lack of university level training. Many people have to go overseas. Didn’t you go to Norway?
‘I went to Norway and then Denmark. I didn’t do a proper school. I’ve done a lot of workshops and stuff like that but I haven’t been doing anything else since I was eleven than short films and films. It’s more learnt by doing. I have been to workshops in Norway and Denmark and even I went to Germany once also. And I’ve been doing like photographing the only thing I’ve not studied a lot is directing but I’ve studied a lot of other stuff around it. I have a strange path as a filmmaker I think.’
Gregg Toland told Orson Welles that he could teach him everything he needed to know in 24 hours. It’s just theory, the rest you learn by doing.
‘Yeah definitely, that is what is good with schools. You get four years to, you know, do your mistakes and do your stuff. I applied for the Danish film school in 2006 I think or 2005 but I didn’t get in. I released Jitters in 2010 and I always looked at Jitters as my graduation film. It was a very hard film to make and a learning process. Life in a Fishbowl was that too. Case was that too. Everything is a learning process and that is what is so fascinating about this job. You’re always doing something that you don’t have a clue how are you going to do it.’
I may be wrong here but I think I have detected some influences in your work. Your episodes of Trapped have some homages to Hitchcock. I didn’t know if that was deliberate or if you were following a house style that Baltasar had set down.
‘We talked a lot about Hitchcock when we were preparing but no I didn’t intentionally do it. Maybe it’s just got in.’
Case has a definite visual style. The cameras are very fluid. Use of light contrasts with the characters’ darkness reminded me of Insomnia. I didn’t know if that was a definite stylistic decision or if you’d just absorbed the film.
‘When I told them that I wanted to do the TV series in the summer when we have all day long sun outside… But still I was going to create this dark environment with lighting. And that was our challenge to make as dark a TV series as we could both in terms of filming and story wise in this bright summertime. I thought it was very interesting to create this dark world in this bright light.’
Did you agree to direct Case before you signed on for Trapped.
‘Yes. Actually I signed the contract of Case before I premièred Life in a Fishbowl. Just like two or three months before and then Life in a Fishbowl came out and then Baltasar contacted me after he saw Life in a Fishbowl and he wanted me to do those first episodes. He told me he liked the style of how I presented characters, how I approached characters and he wanted that in the first three episodes while we were introducing characters and stories. There was a conflict for a while because it almost hit each other. What happened was that I got permission to shoot my episodes first in Trapped. I went over to Case in February and I had like three or four scenes left in Trapped. The other directors did those scenes for me so I could go to Case. I think I shot like six features in ten months when I was working on Case and Trapped. It was a pretty hard time. Very hard to direct so much stuff in so a short period. I signed on for Case before Trapped.’
You’ve directed about eight hours of television. It’s very mature. It’s confident. It’s a dark Reykjavik. The themes are very relevant. The previous series The Court were loosely based on true stories. Was Case totally invented?
‘No. It is based on an old case from 2005 and 2006. A real case here in Iceland. What happened while we were creating, while we were casting their were actors involved in that old case and I didn’t know about it while we were casting. We just found out and they said to us “we know this case because our daughter was involved in this case.” So suddenly we got very inside information from this case.’
Music is very important in terms of conveying the mood. I gather that you commissioned the music before shooting.
‘Yeah. I did it also in Live in a Fishbowl but with a different composer. There I worked with Ólafur Arnalds. It worked very well for me. We did some, you know, some elements just with reading the script together and I was verbally trying to create the mood I wanted. We did actually a live performance and he just played in some scores and actually one of them ended up as one of the main themes in Broadchurch. Now I worked with another man called Pétur Jónsson and we are good friends and I told him I wanted to try to do this again. I edited together of a few films and TV shows to sort of show how I saw the mood of it. We started to create some DNAs over that. Somehow we just hit it right away so I used it also on set and I used it for actors to listen to to get in the mood. I think I will continue working like this. I like this style.’
With the score already in place did that affect the rhythm of your editing?
‘Yeah it definitely did because they had a lot of stuff working with while they were editing. The main editor of Case he had been working on The Court and Pressa and all these TV shows which have a very different style of editing and shooting. It’s a fast pace TV series so I sat down with him and told him that we are not going to do that now. I am shooting the TV series like this and I want to live and do long shoots. If I can create acting and the mood and the settings in one shot I will do it because I think it’s more efficient. I get more out of it if I’m not cutting away. I love films like Children of Men and Revenant where they are using this kind of… and Bergman. Wow. It’s a fake, Bergman, it’s not a one shot film. Have you seen Victoria? Wow. That’s amazing.’
Would it be fair to say your work is characterised by a dark realism?
‘Yes I think so. I think that would be very fair to say.’
So what is it about the darker aspects that attracts you?
‘Once I went to a lecture with David Lynch and I connected with him what he said, because he was asked the same question and he said “that’s because I’m such an optimistic and upright guy.” I smile a lot and I laugh a lot. So there’s something where I get from doing all of this kind of dark things that keeping me going on in my real life, you know. Like Life is a Fishbowl I can fairly say that many things in that film is based on my real life. So I got my share of dark elements and in a way I’ve been dealing with things at the same time but I am a very optimistic and happy guy. I’m not seeing in the near future that I’m going to do a comedy or anything but who knows, maybe. Somehow I’m not trying to do films so that people can you know…. I’m not trying to help anybody or saying anything. I’m not creating some big message I’m just telling stories but I’m very glad when people find something in the stories that helps them. We even met a woman who stopped drinking after watching Life in a Fishbowl. She met Thorsteinn (Bachmann) and said “you just changed my life” and when you hear something like that that’s amazing. I love it. And Jitters my first film it is now today in the school system of Iceland. So every tenth grader, they have to watch the film and learn about it because it’s explains these times for them. It helps them. I just love it. It’s great.’
I’d say that your feature film Life in a Fishbowl explains modern Iceland. Certainly to a UK audience it was one of the first films to convey the emotional impact of the crash. It wasn’t just figures on a balance sheet, lives were destroyed.
‘Yeah, yeah definitely. Early stages of the script it didn’t happen in this period. It wasn’t until the financial crash I somehow I got the right person for the third character and before the crash he was a lawyer. While we were developing the script I realized that I could put it in this environment. It was beautiful. Actually this was supposed to be my first film. I was working on the script when I got the chance to do Jitters. And I’m very glad that I did Jitters first because we needed this time to see the crash from a little bit more distance. If i’d done it like two years later it hadn’t been the same, the impact and the feeling that we got from it. So I just think Life in a Fishbowl came out at exactly the right time for Iceland at least.’
So what are you working on now?
‘I have a feature that we are shooting next year with the same producers that did Jitters and Life in a Fishbowl with me. It’s a coming of age story about two girls who get involved in the drug world here in Reykjavik. We call them the lost girls because they are always missing from time to time. When I started to investigate what they are doing when they are missing that is when I felt OK I have to tell this story. I’m also developing a TV series with Andri who wrote the Case. The strange thing happened that our biggest and oldest phone company who was a distributor here like Netflix here in Iceland, this is the first TV series that they buy to put straight onto VOD. Not to air on television. It’s the first Netflix concept here in Iceland. We are also working with a company in the U.S with this TV series. It’s a mixture of Iceland and U.S. We are just on a very early early stages. We’re just writing the script. We are actually shooting next month a little promotional trailer for it. We’re hoping that we’re going to shoot in 2018.’
Might VOD be another way for the Icelandic film industry to flourish internationally?
‘Definitely. Definitely. And because we have these two big companies who are distributors here in Iceland for VOD which is Siemens which is an old phone company and Vodafone and if they get involved because they are buying this TV series then that is something that has never happened before in Iceland. The distributors are a phone company that is buying this series. So money is flowing again all around which is great.’
The modern Icelandic film industry is relatively young. It began in 1980 with the release of Land and Sons. Now it’s emerged as a confident force that’s ready to take its place on the world stage. Do you think this is going to continue? Will we see a lot more critically acclaimed films coming from Iceland in the years to come?
‘Definitely. Definitely. Of course there are a lot of films and. I think also TV series that haven’t been you know haven’t been seen by the world. I know it’s really really good stuff but we just didn’t have the tools and equipment to make everybody see them. So we have great directors, upcoming directors, old directors and filmmaking is booming in iceland at the moment.’
Thanks to Baldvin Z and Sagafilm