LILLE, France — The gauntlet thrown down by the opening stretches of Viaplay banner title “The Fortress,” one of nine series in main competition at Series Mania, is to believe that this is fiction.
News footage plays of a pandemic, then a war; huge protests rage around the world as Norway’s prime minister addresses his nation to announce that Norway is building a wall to keep everybody else out. That’s been done before (Israel) and in metaphorical terms (Brexit).
Cut to nine years later: Norway is a bucolic paradise, Sweden next door a refugee camp hell, until strange bacteria kills fish and then humans, and Norway will, foreseeably, need international help and “what starts as a wall, ends as a prison,” comments Filippa Wallestam, Viaplay Group chief content officer.
Set in an eerily familiar 2037 Bergen, and starring Selome Emnetu (“Occupied”) and Russell Tovey (“Years & Years”), “The Fortress” weighs in as a chic isolationist parable thriller and a flagship for Viaplay Originals and Nordic storytelling as the Viaplay Group is launching Viaplay in the U.K. and U.S. powered by a monumental Viaplay output of 130 original shows which it will premiere in 2023.
Produced by Maipo Film, behind Canneseries winner “State of Happiness,” “The Fortress” is directed by Cecilie Mosli (“Mammon,” “Grey’s Anatomy”) and Mikkel Brænne Sandemose (“State of Happiness”).Variety talked to John Kåre Raake (“The Quake”), the series main writer, in the run-up to Series Mania.
A first major impact of “The Fortress” is that, though set in a 2037 Bergen, much of it just seems so familiar, with Brexit, the Ukraine War and popular protests. When did you conceive it, and to what extent would you see it as a fantasy play on current issues and policies taken to their hyperbolic conclusion?
The first seed to the idea that became “The Fortress” came with the arrival of the first boat filled with asylum seekers from Africa at a holiday beach in Greece in 2014. The startling images of tourists sunbathing and enjoying their chilled drinks suddenly facing desperate refugees who had risked their lives, venturing out on the open sea in the hope of finding a better life in Europa.
Then the Swedish prime minister Fredrik Reinsfelt held a speech on Aug. 16, 2014 where he famously declared: “You must open your hearts,” to prepare his people for the wave of refugees that was expected to come in the years ahead. One year later the deputy prime minister, Åsa Romson, broke down in tears when she announced that “the open door” policy was coming to an end. Overwhelmed by 190,000 asylum seekers, Sweden could no longer cope.
This rapid change of policy made us wonder how the rest of Europe would react to the waves of people crossing the Mediterranean Sea every day. Inspired by what was happening in U.S, we imagined that countries would start building fences or walls to stop the refugees who could be seen on television walking in large crowds on highways, the police unable to stop them. This soon came to pass when Hungary and Poland started putting up border walls.
Living in one of the richest countries in the world, it was not far-fetched to imagine Norway building the biggest wall, if worst came to worst. This combined with President Trump’s “America first” policy and the U.K’s Brexit made us think we could make an interesting story about us Norwegians executing the extreme version of these politics in the near future by shutting the rest of the world out and deciding to become totally self-sufficient.
So, in a way “The Fortress” is our version of the tourists on the beach in Greece, the world’s problems arriving on our doorsteps, but where the Norwegians don’t have to face these people because the refugees are hidden behind an enormous wall.
Also striking is the mix of Norwegian and British characters. What – and maybe there are several factors – inspired this move?
Since almost all action in the series takes place behind the walls, we wanted to demonstrate the collapse of the European infrastructure by showing that the people trying to get into Norway are coming from countries we normally think refugees from other continents are trying to get into. And it was also inspired by U.K.’s Brexit, proving to be a not so great idea when it came to being a self-sufficient country and the political chaos that emerged from it.
”The Fortress” is a social parable and political thriller, I think. Was it a challenge to mix the two?
What we talked a lot about during development was the importance of focusing on ‘The small in the big’ – telling our story through real people living in this alternate version of Norway. How does living in an isolated world change them? Our next challenge was to find out what kind of people we could tell an interconnected thriller story in a way that felt organic and true.
What were your major challenges when writing?
We started writing the scripts for “The Fortress” before the pandemic and had some difficulty making readers believe that such a closed-off world could exist. That it was possible to live and have all holidays inside Norway. When the pandemic broke out and our borders were closed for the first time ever, our imaginary world suddenly became a reality. And all though writing the series in isolation in our home offices at times felt like writing a depressing documentary, it was a great help in terms of research. Seeing how fast our hospitals became overloaded with COVID patients. How normal it became for everybody to assemble in front of our TV sets to hear our leaders, and our king, speak about how to behave to beat the pandemic. And how willingly we accepted that the normal democratic process be set aside. Even getting irritated when the opposition to the ruling government protested some of the emergency-law proposals.
What have been the major changes in opportunities for screenwriters in Norway over the last decade?
Firstly, Norwegian films have gotten out into the world in a big way. Working in a very small country we have previously been limited by how many people it’s possible to get into local cinemas. Being able to sell our movies and getting financing outside of Norway has made it possible to conceive bigger stories, and more films. The arrival of the streamers has given us a much larger customer base and outlets to sell our ideas to. These days Norwegian screenwriters get to pitch to Viaplay, Netflix, Amazon, Apple and other streamers in addition to our local broadcasters.
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