Why Iceland punches above its weight on the international drama scene | Characteristics
Icelandic fishing quotas don’t seem like a TV staple, so it’s only a sign of the strength of the Icelandic TV boom that the new series Portnoir won the international competition grand prize at Series Mania last year before winning the Nordisk Film & TV Fond award in Gothenburg in January.
The fishing quotas imposed in the 1980s are just a backdrop for the power struggles and family dramas that unfold in Portnoir, written by Gisli Orn Gardarsson and Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson (who also direct and star in the series) alongside Mikael Torfason. Produced by Vesturport, the program is supported by the Icelandic public channel RUV alongside Arte France. Turbine Studios’ Andrew Eaton served as UK co-producer, while French company About Premium Content handled sales.
RUV TV chief Skarphedinn Gudmundsson sees Portnoir as a family saga “like an Icelandic brother to dallas”. Fishing quotas provided ‘the broader spectrum of our series,’ says actor/writer/director Gardarsson International Screen. “The core are the people who were at the heart of Iceland in 1983, when the idea for our quota system was born,” he says. “The show has great energy, it’s unforgiving, naked and raw – just like the times in Iceland were in the 80s.”
Located at the other end of the country, near the coastal town of Vik in southern Iceland, is black sands, presented at the last edition of the Berlinale Series. Its creator Baldvin Zophoniasson – better known as Baldvin Z – had previously worked on TV series from 2015 Case (which has sold to HBO Europe, Netflix for the US and Channel 4 for the UK) and is known in the film world for his feature films Life in a fishbowl (2014) and Let me fall (2018), both of which were selected for Toronto. Doing Casehe met Icelandic police investigator Ragnar Jonsson as an advisor and together they developed the concept of black sandsabout a thirtysomething detective who returns to her childhood hometown to investigate the death of a tourist and must come to terms with his dark family history.
Glassriver, which Baldvin Z founded in 2016 with partners including CEO Hordur Runarsson, produces the series, with private backing from Channel 2 alongside YLE, Belgium’s VRT and the Icelandic Film Fund. All3Media manages the sales.
The filmmaker says a company like Glassriver is “changing the atmosphere in Iceland because we only do original content, not as service providers…we hire new directors and creators and make new shows with them, and we strengthen our confidence in ourselves and in our international potential.
Runarsson adds that he’s delighted that Glassriver works in a range of genres, including friend comedy Travel and supernatural medical drama broken bones. “We see such different kinds of shows happening in Iceland now,” he says.
Iceland has a powerful tradition of storytelling that dates back to the sagas of the 13th century, and this current wave is being driven by a group of writers, directors and actors who are happy to jump between television and feature films, creating works that attract worldwide attention. Added to this is stable government support through a robust tax incentive, the Icelandic Film Fund and public broadcaster RUV, as well as top-level trained crews from their work on the many major Hollywood projects shooting in Iceland every year.
New to the mix, however, is a heightened international ambition. Some earlier Icelandic shows such as 2007 drama series The night shiftwhich was produced for Channel 2, aired in a few territories, but the first series that had truly global ambitions from the start was Trap. In December 2015, RUV set Icelandic viewership records when it released the ambitious mystery thriller, about a murder in a remote fishing village where cruise ship passengers are snowbound. Created by Iceland’s busiest filmmaker, Baltasar Kormakur (whose credits include Everest and the future star of Idris Elba Beast), the RVK Studios production was successful in the UK (BBC), France (France 2), Germany (ZDF) and many other territories. At the end of 2021, Kormakur created the third season of Trap on RUV and it will be released on Netflix later this year. Olafur Darri Olafsson again leads the cast as Police Chief Andri with Kormakur noting, “The third season plays heavily into Andri’s whole psyche, further into his personal issues and his own journey.”
Kormakur agrees Trap set a new benchmark: “It didn’t feel like a small local production. I was adamant he should travel overseas. He is also proud that it has provided international opportunities for other Icelandic creators: Ugla Hauksdottir, director of the season 2 episodes, is now working on the Amazon series. The powerwhile regular director Borkur Sigthorsson continued to work on the BBC Baptist. “Trap started giving them that chance on the biggest stage,” says Kormakur, who launched the Netflix series himself. Katla in 2021. “It helped people become more ambitious. So many opportunities have been created from this.
Screenwriter Margret Ornolfsdottir worked on the second season of Trapwho she also saw as a game-changer. “I worked alongside writers from the UK and we had a French story editor and a German producer, so he really had that international ambition,” says Ornolfsdottir, a music industry veteran (as a member of rock band The Sugarcubes) who began writing for Icelandic television around 2006. She worked on all six episodes Prisonerswhich sold well to international streamers, as well as the serial killer story of Truenorth and Mystery The Valhalla Murdersthe first Netflix co-production in Iceland.
As a writer, she calls it a “balancing act”, knowing that a show can travel but not trying to write something aimed at a generic international audience. “It can be a trap to think: ‘Will this work for the public in Belgium?’ “, she observes. “But you always imagine how an audience will receive it.”
For public broadcaster RUV, it is important to balance international ambition with the needs of local audiences. “Local audiences are our main priority,” says Gudmundsson. “But because we’re such a small market, we depend on international co-production and distribution. We need to find ways to do this work hand in hand, making our original and innovative local stories globally appealing.
“It’s not just about finding the next mystery crime, it’s also about finding original stories,” he adds. It helps that so many Icelandic arthouse filmmakers are curious about exploring television. woman at war director Benedikt Erlingsson, for example, is developing The Danish womanhis first TV show with RUV, which will feature Trine Dyrholm.
Even with all these bright spots and ambitious talents, the Icelandic television industry still has its unique challenges. “When you’re in a market of 100,000 households [367,000 people], is the size of a city in Sweden. Funding is therefore a constant struggle,” says Gudmundsson.
As in other territories, booking crews can be a logistical challenge, especially as many in-house investment shoots keep local crews busy. So far in 2022 these include the Netflix/BBC movie Elba Luther and Hulu series Washington Black.
Ornolfsdottir also warns that Icelandic TV makers must keep fighting. “We’re going a long way in our enthusiasm, but it’s still a small business compared to other countries,” she says. “We can’t get lazy just because we get this attention. We still have a long way to go to make this work. »
In progress: Upcoming Icelandic Series
As long as we live
Glassriver is producing this 6 x 45 minute show for Channel 2 to play The Tudors actress Anita Briem, who also writes all the episodes. Norwegian channel NRK is also backing the story of a former pop star whose outdated marriage is turned upside down when a young man enters her family’s life. Ready to shoot from summer 2022.
Contact: Eccho Rights
Eva Sigurdardottir – 2013 Bafta nominated Producer for Short Good night — directs this eight-episode drama about a female ER doctor, her psychic mother, and her teenage daughter. Produced for RUV in co-production with the Lumière group (Benelux), with the co-funding of DR, YLE, NRK and SVT and the support of the Icelandic Film Centre.
Contact: REinventing studios
Home is where the heart is
Creator Tinna Hrafnsdottir presented this series at the Tallinn Black Nights and Gothenburg film festivals. The Siminn streaming service is on board for the 6 x 50 minute story which Hrafnsdottir describes as “three siblings who are to take over the successful family business of whale watching and also inherit a beautiful summer home Then, the true character of the siblings and their relationship with their parents comes up.
Margret Ornolfsdottir’s next show will be this adaptation of Gunnar Gunnarsson’s famous Icelandic novel about a notorious crime of passion from the early 1800s in the Westfjords. The project is under development and will come to market later in 2022.
Contact: Neutrino production
A drama exploring the life of Iceland’s first female president, Vigdis Finnbogadottir, played by The Valhalla Murders‘ Nina Dogg Filippusdottir. Ready to shoot later in 2022.