Behind the Scenes with The Killing and Borgen

This week in Sydney, Australia, we were lucky enough to get the opportunity to speak with Piv Bernt, Head of Drama at DK (Danish Broadcasting Corporation); Sofie Gråbøl, the lead actress ofThe Killing (Forbrydelsen); Adam Prise, creator and writer of Borgenand Sidse Babett Knudsen, lead actress for Borgen. Hosted by Australian TV personality Julia Zemiro from SBS, the talk gave us an insight into the way that TV drama is made in Denmark through the public broadcasting system and the strengths and weaknesses of having a small population on which to source the creative team.   

First off, the talk was in English, so the four people being interviewed spoke fluently in their second language and in the case of Sidse Babett Knudsen, a third language as she also speaks French.  Very impressive. Glimpsing behind the scenes on TV programs is usually the domain of US entertainment industry, and if you are lucky some very popular British programs.  To see how it is done in a European country is a rare treat.  Denmark has the population of 5.59 million.  So not many people in the grand scheme of things. DK is the public broadcasting company in Denmark and it runs in a similar way to the BBC, as it is an independent, licence-financed public institution. In the mid 1990s the Head of Drama at the time decided to focus on building quality stories with one vision. Inspired by the writing format of American shows on HBO like The Wire and Six Feet Under, that use a group of writers who work with the creator/show runner, and combining it a commitment to telling stories about contemporary Denmark, with all its strengths and weaknesses. For a writer/creator, getting a story commissioned by DK is the biggest hurdle, as there is an insistence from the broadcaster that the show is not just its three sentence description, it has a second or third layer that reflects life in Denmark.  Once the idea is commissioned, the 'one vision' approach takes over. The writer/creator is given 20 episodes to tell a story and enough pre-production time to build a team of cast and crew that contribute to the 'one vision' of the story that is being told. If you look back at the series of shows that came out of Denmark since the 1990s you could make a case for the inevitability of the success of The Killing and subsequently Borgen, The 'one vision' approach is working.  


An important point made by Piv Bernt when asked by why The Killing became an international hit when the previous shows from DK did not, was the investment made in production values. The look, the tone, the music and sound are important, and so is the acknowledgement and use of a unique location - Denmark. What a no-brainer.  No wonder tourism has increased in Denmark. It is a country I want to go to now, not so much before I watched my fill of Danish dramas.  

There are lessons in the approach taken from DK. The commitment to a story with a 20 episode commission takes the executive conversation away from ratings and the cancellation pressure off the cast and crew. The limited resources and opportunities makes the commissioning process more rigorous which means if the story is picked up, it 50% of the way there.   

The discussion also touched on the remakes - very polite, but just watch the original; the small pool of actors in a small country and the delight in offering well rounded characters of both sexes.  These stories are about human beings, no matter their gender. 


Danish Crime Drama on TV

The Killing, the original Danish version and not the US remake, became a ratings hit for the BBC two years ago. British TV made European crime drama popular and started a shapeless knitted jersey fashion trend. Little did they know that European crime drama had been making a killing in Australia for a number of years.

Starting with the Danish onslaught of Unit One (Danish: Rejseholdet) and The Eagle: A Crime Odyssey (Danish: Ørnen: En krimi-odyssé) in the mid 2000s, the Australian TV channel, SBS, realised that by fulfilling its founding belief of that all Australians, regardless of geography, age, cultural background or language skills should have access to high quality, independent, culturally-relevant Australian media*, it was also getting a following for European flavoured crime. And then came The Killing, a whole year before the UK. We were glued to our TV sets week after week, stumbling across fellow viewers at dinner parties or at work. It was a throwback to the pre-internet 1990s. As it was not yet known in the US or the UK, the English-language based entertainment industry was not talking about it, and English speaking fans were in the minority. We went back to the original water cooler and the only spoilers were the previews for the next episode each week. It was fantastic.

Since then we have had The Protectors (Danish: Livvagterne) about the police bodyguard squad (PET) and most recently The Bridge (Swedish/Danish: Bron/Broen), a Danish and Swedish co-production about a murder investigation resulting from a body found on the Oresund Bridge connecting the two countries.  FX in the US have already ordered a pilot for a US remake taking place on the border between the US and Mexico.  It looks like the remake factory hasn't learnt their lesson from The Killing experience.  Getting a glimpse into Danish culture is half the fun of these series. The popularity of The Killing in the UK led to the BBC trusting the taste of its audience and importing two French crime dramas, Spiral (French: Engrenages) and Barquo (French: Barquo).

All three series of Spiral have shown on SBS, and we wait with bated breath to find out what happens next. For some of the best commentary on The Killing, Spiral, The Bridge, and Danish political drama Borgen, go to The Guardian online. There you can find a community of viewers who know their Sofie Gråbøl from their Sofia Helin, and help you with the light fittings envy that wells up inside you once you have watched more than one European crime dramas. No one does household furnishings like the Northern Europeans.                     

* Us/Our Story