Icelandic drama Trapped enjoyed a stunning and critically-acclaimed start on Saturday night, with two episodes that set up a fascinating whodunit story in a coastal community that had been cut off from the rest of the island thanks to a world-ending snow storm. It had all the ingridients you want from a taut mystery thriller – a closed, one-location set-up, (litreally) boat-loads of suspects and some excellent characters with real emotional depth. Oh, and it was Icelandic. One of the more surprisong things about Trapped is that one of its main writers is Clive Bradley, an Englishman. We managed to catch up with Clive to talk about the show and how he got involved with something so… Icelandic. It makes for a fascinating read.
The Killing Times: How did you get involved with an Icelandic drama?
Clive Bradley: It’s a slightly long story. Creator Baltazar Kormákur’s company RVK had developed it and they had sort of hit a bit of a brick wall with it. They wanted it to be an international show; they didn’t just want it to be just for Iceland. They also wanted international funding and that kind of thing. They had started a relationship with a company called Dynamic Television, which is a transatlantic company, and one of its executive producers – a German based in Paris – I’d been working with on a couple of projects. We worked very well together and he got me involved, and so it developed from there. In the first instance, I wrote my own version of the pilot, which helped to get ZDF in Germany onboard, and then we used a system where I would write the whole thing in English, which was then translated into Icelandic by Sigurjón Kjartansson.
TKT: Is TV becoming increasingly like that – working within an internationalist model, with an eye on co-productions and global sales?
CB: Certainly that’s true. I’ve got a few projects in development, all of which will have to be co-productions in order to get off the ground. That’s mainly because there’s more money that way, and increasingly there’s a more international audience. One of the things I’m doing is a story about the migrant crisis, which takes place across continental Europe. In order to do that you need to collaborate. I think it’s important to bear in mind that in continental Europe they’ve been working like this for a lot longer.
TKT: You’re obviously an Englishman writing an Icelandic drama. In terms of getting the cultural nuances and phrases right, how did you go about that?
CB: I was working very closely with Sigurjón, who is also officially called the showrunner. There was a lot of the basic genome of the piece that they had already sorted out. But not all of it – the ending, for instance, wasn’t in the original material. But all of Andri and his family situation was already there and part of the material. I think in terms of developing the story, part of the attraction of it for me was the connection to the financial crisis in 2008 – so it wasn’t just about Iceland, it was about the world. In terms of working out the rest of the plot, a thriller plot is a thriller plot, really.
TKT: There does seem to be this ‘second story’ element to Trapped…
CB: Yes, most defintely. The various people who run the town are very important to the story, without giving too much away. All of that’s very important. On a lower level there’s a lot of cultural things you have to get right. So for instance, I remember in my first draft of the first episode there were people carrying umbrellas. And of course, no one carries on umbrella in Iceland. Working with an Icelandic writer, those kinds of things were very easy to address.
TKT: What were the other things that surprised you when it came to cultural differences?
CB: It’s a volcanic island, and most people live around the edges. And two-thirds of the population live in Reykjavik. So in fact it’s only a third of the population that lives in countryside. But it is a very unusual landscape and hot springs are quite common – you’ll be driving around and hot steam will be coming out of the ground. There are naturally heated swimming pools in the middle of nowhere. There was one place we went to work – a little cottage where it was 25 minutes drive to the nearest shop – there was an open-air swimming pool that’s naturally heated. There’s a moment in episode five where the assembled foreigners in the sports hall are worried about the heating, and it’s pointed out to them that it’s all natural heating. It’s things like that that are quite arresting. And then you’ve got the extremes of the weather. Obviously the storm we have in Trapped doesn’t happen all the time, but it does get very cold and very dark for some of the year.
TKT: Can you talk to us about your process for constructing a whodunit?
CB: First of all you have to have a range of plausible suspects, but they also have to be interesting people. One of the things, for instance, that changed from the original shape was the identity of the corpse. ZDF was interested in the success of Broadchurch. One of the things about Broadchurch is that you know immediately the identity of the dead child and the family, so the emotional weight of the case is very strong, and that’s largely what is carrying it: we care about these people and what has happened to them. When you’ve got a headless, armless and legless corpse, all you know is that someone didn’t like this person. One of the things we felt was a problem in the original incarnation was that you found out very late who the victim was. We changed that, and brought forward the identity of the victim, which means you’re able to explore who that person was and the emotional consequences of that person being killed.
TKT: Are there any rules that you follow when you write a whodunit?
CB: A bit, I suppose. To me what’s important is what the whole drama is saying. If, at the end, all it is is just a puzzle that you solve, I think that’s a bit disappointing. I think you need to say something about the world. Obviously, you go from suspect to suspect, but there’s quite a lot of other stuff that happens.
TKT: Andri and his estranged wife’s family dynamic is really interesting, as is the portrayal of their children: they’re not the usual sweetness-and-light kids; they’ve been genuinely affected by their parents break-up and are now acting accordingly by bullying. This struck me as unusual and very realistic…
CB: On one level it’s a cliché – the cop has a troubled private life. Andri’s not an alcoholic, which is the full-on cliché, but you can’t really get away from the fact that your central character has to have problems to make them interesting. So these kinds of problems with his family are what you have to explore, and not just the obvious. And absolutely one of the things we wanted to explore was how Andri and his wife’s relationship affected their children. We wanted to get that right and make as realistic as possible. I’m not sure if The Killing was the first one to do it but recent crime dramas have tried to not be just a puzzle. You obviously have things like Poirot, but there’s not really the intention there to explore the emotional life of the characters. Whereas with the Scandinavian stuff, at its best, that’s absolutely the intention. With Trapped we wanted to make the characters real people, and their personal dynamics influenced by bigger issues. This is a family that’s been struck by personal tragedy, which has ripple effects. That death took place in 2008, along with the financial crash and things like that. It’d about finding ways to connect the dots so it’s not just a puzzle.
Trapped: Saturdays, 9pm, BBC4