Penned by Danish screenwriter Kim Fupz Aakeson (“Dancers”), HBO Europe’s new show “Welcome to Utmark” is one buzzy contender for this year’s Nordisk Film & TV Fond Prize, whose announcement on Feb. 3 marks one highlight at the Göteborg Festival TV Drama Vision.
The eight-part series, produced by Norway’s Paradox, represents a clear bell-weather to HBO Europe’s ambitions for Scandinavia, mixing some of the finest talent in the region, led by Icelandic director Dagur Kári (“Virgin Mountain”) and lensed by Norwegian DP Andreas Johannessen.
The result is a modern Western, set on the northern margins of Norway, on Sami territory where breathtaking landscape often steals the show. Dramatic opening shots of a sweeping barren landscape set the scene for the viewer. This is a tale set on the edges of civilization – as it is conceived by most Norwegians, and Utmark is a frontier town. Its inhabitants are often caricatured, but profoundly human in their contradictions. Aakeson draws shades of grey through characters’ stark contrasts: a sheriff with fast bowl syndrome, a proud Sami, owner of a 4×4, a possessed shopkeeper, a grieving pimp, among others.
The center of a drama that engulfs a whole community turns on a battle for livestock and a young daughter -played by Alma Günther (“Side by Side”)- of a divorcing couple who – seemingly vainly – tries to make adults behave like adults. Events spin off out of control as the show’s structure hints at the entropy of reality. Comedy and tragedy intertwine in an emotional take on the genre and its very human drama. If there is any pattern to the early events in this Western, its women and teens who drive the drama, and hold some of hope for the future.
Variety interviewed Aakeson a few days before Sweden’s Göteborg Festival.
Although there’s a clear sense of influence of “Fargo” and “Twin Peaks,” the show presents a quite unique universe, with its own idiosyncrasies and dynamics, building upon the Western. How did that come about it?
When we had this idea, it was actually for a feature film, but, yes, we approached this as a Western. We had a quite short synopsis with took in character and plot and we wanted to find a city, a society in northern Norway, which is our frontier – as for most Nordic countries. The indigenous Sami population is there, but also “society,” a western world setting with a priest, an undertaker, a bar, one police officer. We had a “Fargo” and “Twin Peaks” tone from the beginning but the choice of Dagur Kari as director was very deliberate – to have someone who knew how to get this melody going for eight episodes because this is his world also. And he is a master of pause. One big thing was having the same director and cinematographer for all eight parts so we knew all the way what kind of notes we were hitting.
The characters in Utmark – often presented with comedic undertones – rapidly establish multiple contrasts that makes them remarkably tridimensional….
I studied screenwriting at Denmark’s National Film School in the mid ’90s. We were always told, “This is a small country, we don’t have any money. So here’s a woman and a man, make it interesting.” We found out that it’s often about building expectation and then surprising, twisting ideas. This was how we’d work on small scenarios with few characters, always exploring which way we’d take them. Early on we decided what the characters would be like but we didn’t know where their arcs would be going. That was really quite good. For me, often everything is too planned, everything fits too neatly, and then there’s no surprise. If your character goes exploring like on a safari you suddenly find strange solutions, connections, which makes work more fun.
That shines through, as does the ambivalence of the characters, which marks out the show’s tone, ranging from comic to tragic to emotional, but always rooted in the genre. Can you comment?
Tone is always kind of a dangerous thing to balance because the humor can eat into the seriousness and vice-versa. In many ways, you work on the script with the director and actors, and it becomes a different version, and then in the editing room you calibrate. “Now that’s silly, now it’s too dark, yes, that’s it!” You can very easily tip too much one way or the other, so it’s very much about having the possibilities, having the cast playing [with the text] and you have to get it right in the editing room. I could’t imagine working with anyone but Dagur on this journey because he is very much into this kind of world.
You mentioned the original idea being a film. What did the series format give you when developing its structure?
To me, it’s about the conflict, how it evolves. Like a cancer, moving in through the society and how a lot of things happens, like in the real world. They aren’t planned by some mastermind. It’s simply human beings trying to get along in the world and suddenly they push each other, not deliberately but it just happens. I like this way of telling a story, which is not easy in a feature film. A feature film’s so tight, it’s the story of a man going from here to there, and now he knows what he didn’t at the beginning, In a series, by contrast, it’s possible to be more… I don’t want to say casual, but with no straight lines. It’s a more open and more interesting journey than a feature film, which is very structured and tight.