Interview: Mammon writer Gjermund Stenberg Eriksen

images.list.co.uk_mammon-joYou’ve probably heard by now, but Norwegian thriller Mammon (starting on More4 this week) could well be your next big Scandinavian obsession. It’s a cracking thriller featuring a journalist (Jon Øigarden) who investigates financial malpractice among the Oslo elite. It just so happens that his first port of call is his brother… We managed to nab an interview with writer Gjermund Stenberg Eriksen, and it’s really interesting stuff (he calls Scandinavia “small and weird”, for instance). Have a read after the jump.

The Killing Times: Explain a little about what the series is about.
Gjermund Stenberg Eriksen: Well, it’s a thriller, where journalists aren’t all good. In State of Play, all journalists are good, and we wanted to create a series where not all journalists are positive, crime-fighting types. On a personal level, it’s a story about two brothers, and why they develop differently, and how one of them wants to find the truth about his own brother. As a journalist, he reveals this truth, this scandal about his brother. He works on Norway’s most respected newspaper, and he reveals his brother as being involved in a financial fraud, with tragic consequences. Then the question emerges of what really happened to his brother.

TKT: One of the things that’s interesting about this is that you made the series with your brother [producer Vegard Stenberg Eriksen]. Is it a coincidence that you’ve come up with a series about brothers, or was it something you always planned to do?
GSE:
We always planned to do that. We are also quite different, so we wanted to write about parts of ourselves. What makes one character choose that path in life, and another choose a totally different path. Why is one socially a winner and one anti-social. Obviously that wouldn’t make a TV series, so we put on some extra layers of drama. It’s very strange. We have the same parents, and pretty much the same humour, but his skills have taken him in one direction and mine have taken me in another.

TKT: Sibling rivalry has always been a rich dramatic vein.
GSE:
Yes! We thought the story had a lot of dramatic potential. We always use the biblical metaphor of Cain and Abel. Who’s actually killing whom? Why does the bible say that Cain has no reason to be upset? Abel gets all the glory. He gets the best land, he gets the approval from his father and from God, he gets all the benefits and becomes the hero. In our story, their father is a priest, and there is some mystery that relates to certain themes in the bible.

TKT: As the writer, did you stay involved throughout the process? Or do you finish the script and hand it over and move on to the next thing?
GSE:
We are brothers, so we share the credit both ways. So he’s part of the story involvement, and I have no formal involvement in the filming, but we worked very closely together, and with the female director (Cecilie Mosli), who’s done a great job. So I could say “I like this casting, I like that casting,” but I don’t actually have final call on anything. There’s a new Scandinavian model coming through now, going more in the Danish direction, so in season two I will have a more official role in the production. But I watched all the clips with my brother, I told him what I thought and how I felt. But my older brother was the boss. He’s the producer, so he and the director have the final say.

TKT: Working closely together, does it make it easier or more difficult that you are siblings?
GSE:
I think it’s much easier. We’ve been trying to make stuff together for 20 years. We’re always competing on finding the best solution to a dramatic problem, what’s the most entertaining or exciting solution? And since we completely agree on 85 per cent of the material, the last 15 per cent, where we challenge each other, is probably where our best work is done. We fight a lot creatively, and because we’re brothers, we don’t have to tread really carefully around each other and be really diplomatic. We can skip all the bullshit and go straight into conflict. We might have to say to the other people in the room “Remember we’re friends, we’re brothers, so bear with us.” We’re always competing to be the smartest brother. And the jury is out.

TKT: How has the show been received in Norway?
GSE:
Well, I cannot be modest about that. It’s got the best reviews any Norwegian crime story or thriller has ever had. I think it’s one of the best-reviewed drama series ever. And we had the second highest audience figure of any drama in Norwegian history. The top one was Blue Sky, which was a Norwegian family drama, which had an average audience of 1,350,000, and we had 1.3 million. We’re only 5 million people in Norway, so it’s a high number. We got 60 per cent of the Norwegian viewing audience.

TKT: Why do you think Scandinavian drama has become so popular in recent years?
GSE:
Obviously we have a crime story tradition in Scandinavia, which is strong. Jo Nesbo and Stieg Larsson are the two biggest ones. But it was The Killing, made in Denmark, that opened everybody’s eyes internationally. When you have limited resources, you have to develop storylines that are more human and drama-based, as opposed to pure conflict and action. In the US or Britain you have the standardised programmes where someone is killed, and then they catch the killer at the end of the episode. The Danes showed that the long series format could really work. That really showed the potential within Scandinavian countries. So then The Bridge got commissioned in Sweden and Denmark, and Mammon was commissioned in 2009. I think in the old days people thought of crime stories as some sort of necessity, and the high culture was something else. Now it is accepted that it can be quality drama as well. The great thrillers use their antagonistic forces to tell important stories about society. I think both The Killing and The Bridge did that splendidly, and we tried to do that too. The Killing did politics and crime and police investigation, The Bridge does crime investigation and major issues in society where the welfare state is part of the problem, and we did media, and how it is an intrinsic part of politics and business. Also, Scandinavia is small and weird, and I think people don’t know a lot about Scandinavia. It’s supposed to be one of the best places to live in the world – Sweden, Denmark and Norway seem to circulate which one comes out on top, but we still have crime. We still have very dark, dark things happening in our society. People like to see that there is trouble even in these places.

TKT: So has Scandinavian drama got a lot better in recent years, or have we just not noticed before?
GSE:
I think the Danish revolutionised non-English-speaking drama. In my opinion Denmark is in the top-three drama-series-producing nations in the world. Israel and Denmark are both small countries that really compete with the UK and the US. The rest of us have been a long, long way behind. But structurally Sweden and Norway have been looking to Denmark, studying how the industry works. They’ve streamlined and professionalised the production line in the last ten years, and it’s been amazing. So we’re surfing on the Danish wave in Norway and in Sweden.

TKT: Most Scandinavian dramas, including Mammon, are shot without very much colour, and are quite grey. Why is that?
GSE:
It’s quite bleak, I suppose it reflects the tone of the programme. There’s a sort of anti-glamorous culture in Denmark, Sweden and Norway – we’re protestants, we’re not supposed to show off. And also it’s our climate. If we have three weeks of proper summer, that’s amazing. It is dark, and for half the year it’s grey. If we were to go flashy with a lot of sunshine and colour, people would not recognise it. We don’t have carnivals in Scandinavia. Our churches are plain white, there’s no extravagance. So the tonality matches the tonality of the Scandinavian mood, I reckon.

Mammon: Friday 28th March, 9pm, More4

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