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‘Beforeigners” Anne Bjornstad on HBO’s First Norwegian Original Series

Annika Pham

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HAUGESUND, Norway  —  HBO Europe’s first Norwegian original series, which debuted Aug. 21 exclusively across HBO’s territories, has garnered rave reviews in the Norwegian press. It is also a perfect fit for HBO’s brand and goal to create bold, smart and author-driven shows.

Produced by Endemol Shine’s Norwegian prodco Rubicon TV, “Beforeigners” is helmed by Jens Lien (“Occupied”, “The Bothersome Man”). The backdrop for the six-part series is a not so far future. A new phenomenon starts happening all over the world. As flashes of light occur in the ocean, people from the past -the stoneage, the Viking age, and the late 1800s- called Beforeigners, mysteriously start to appear. A few years later, Alfhildr (“Blade Runner 2049”’s Krista Kosonen) who comes from the Viking Age has joined the local police force’s integration program, and becomes the side-kick to Lars Haaland (“Acquitted”’s Nicolai Cleve Broch}. The duo makes unexpected discoveries, while investigating the murder of a woman with Stone Age tattoos.

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After delivering the successful fish-out of-water show “Lilyhammer”, co-created with her writing and life partner Eilif Skodvin, Anne Bjørnstad talks to Variety about the making of “Beforeigners”. The head of drama at Rubicon TV also hints at her upcoming TV projects.

Both “Lilyhammer” and “Beforeigners” innovate with the crime genre, introducing high-concept-elements and satire. Where did you and Eilif learn to create such original characters and plotlines?

Our background is in comedy writing. That’s how we met. None of us has an education in screenwriting. I studied languages, sociology, and the history of ideas. When we got a development deal for “Lilyhammer, “ we both started reading every screenwriting book we could find, from John McPhee to William Goldman. I found interesting that almost every book starts with “O.K., you have a great idea now what do you do…” For me the idea is everything.

Where did the idea for “Beforeigners” come from?

After “Lilyhammer” we did “Roeng” (“The Councilman”) and were looking for fresh ideas. Sci fi was new for us and we’ve always loved the genre.  Then Eilif had this idea… what if refugees arrived not from a different location but from different times! It felt like a fantastic premise that offered so many possibilities. After creating the universe, we tried to figure out how to build a story around it.

The concept is highly original, but you used a conventional crime story as a main engine…

Quite early we decided that we wanted a crime story with two main characters Lars and Alfhildr. We had a specific feeling for the type of story we wanted to tell. Then in 2017, we pitched that idea to Hanne Palmquist in Copenhagen [HBO Europe’s executive producer]. We hadn’t written anything yet, but Hanne immediately got the idea and was super excited about it.

While writing, did you have in the back of your mind HBO’s specific branding, and how was your relationship with HBO Europe?

Our idea was a bit crazy, but somehow it felt totally right for HBO. All along, we were encouraged to be bold and brave and stay true to our vision. HBO Europe took the risk of backing us all the way and never asked: “Will people understand this or not? Is this interesting enough?” They did ask some questions, but in the positive sense. They have been very much involved throughout the creative and production process.

Were they involved in the selection of the cast and crew?

The cast is one of the things that broadcasters want to be involved in. Here, again, they were open-minded. We are extremely happy with the cast. Krista Kosonen in particular is an amazing talent, both vulnerable and strong. She didn’t understand a word of Norwegian, so learning Old Norse and acting with such ease, was an outstanding achievement.

When did Jens Lien come on board and how was your collaboration?
Hanne [Palmquist] knew Jens and he came on board quite early. We had never collaborated with him before but loved his film “The Bothersome Man.” It’s also sci fi but at the same time it feels real. That fitted perfectly our vision for a sci-fi show, which was not to have flying cars, but a story anchored in everyday life. Jens had also directed the TV series “Sons of Norway,” set in the ‘70s so he had experience with period drama as well. One of the things that made the show so strong is that we had time to prepare. We could explore the concept together at a profound level.

One of the biggest challenges must have been the different languages and use of old Norse. How much research was required and how did the actors train?

The universe is an allegory of the refugee crisis and migration issues. As a migrant, you have your own language and identity. We felt it was important for the Beforeigners to have their own language. We knew before casting that the language was important and that was a key element even in the casting process.

Old Norse is very well documented in the sagas, we know how the language was, but we do not know how it was pronounced. Therefore early on, I contacted researchers, professors who helped us. We also constructed the language that stone-age people spoke, and even with the language from the 19th century: We worked on it to make it sound right.
We also had a language coach to help actors on set. The full process was long. But then, people do spend time on costume and make-up. Why not invest in language, which  is such a big part of a person’s identity?

The series is laced with humor. I laughed notably at Krista Kosonen’s innovative Viking hygiene towels! Can you expand on the comedy element?

People often ask why do you want to make comedies? For us, it’s part of our way of living, who we are.  We had a lot of fun in creating this world. Here the tone is more serious than in “Lilyhammer” as it deals with identity, belonging. It is meant to engage the viewer to feel for the characters, so you don’t want an ironic distance with the characters. Therefore humor is more downplayed here.

Did you have specific references in mind?

We had a big list of shows as references. We were inspired by series like “True Love,” “District 9.” Regarding the construction of a main underlying story within the universe, we looked at “The Leftovers”. Then all sci-fi classics-“Brave New World”, “1984” – were in the back of our mind.

Where was the series shot and for how long?

It was shot in Oslo and Lithuania. What was actually hilarious was that we had people speaking Norwegian, Finnish, Icelandic, Old Norse and an entire crew speaking Lithuanian (laughs). It was an extreme experience, but so empowering.

Are you planning a returning season?

It’s a heavy production that involved a big crew. It will be a big puzzle to put together again, but we are preparing a second season and have lots of new ideas.

Is this Rubicon TV’s most ambitious TV series ever?

Of course and it’s extremely important for us. At the same time, I’ve been building our drama slate as head of drama. I have developed, “Countrymen” (“Jordbrukene”), co-created with director Izer Aliu, “Tante Ulrikke’s vei, [written/directed by “What Will People Say”’s Iram Haq ]. I executive produced NRK’s critically-acclaimed youth series “Lovleg”, and we have many other great shows coming. The company is extremely proud to have made the very first HBO Europe Norwegian original show.

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