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Iceland Series Mania ‘Blackport’ Drama Göteborg

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Already celebrating the success of a top win at Series Mania, as well as 80% national audience approval, RÚV’s Icelandic series “Blackport” has now been nominated for 2022’s 6th Nordisk Film and TV Fond Prize at Göteborg. The prize will be presented during the film festival’s industry conference TV Drama Vision on Feb. 2, and serves to reward exemplary writing in Nordic drama series.

“Blackport,” which follows Iceland’s 1980s fishing quota power struggle, is tightly paced for action, and the three nominated writers pull no punches, leaving only their characters’ arms to the cutting room floor. Two “Blackport’s” writers – Gísli Örn Gardarsson and Björn Hlynur Haraldsson – direct and star in the series. Writer Mikael Torfason (“Made in Iceland,” “The Valhalla Murders”) is also nominated for the prize.

Variety spoke with all three of the nominated writers ahead of the Göteborg Film Festival.

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Gisli Orn Gardarsson, Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson and Mikael Torfason

How well known is the story of “Blackport” among Icelanders? How much did the events of the show shape the history of Iceland?

Gísli Örn Gardarsson: During the period of “Blackport,” 1983-1991, a fishing quota system was created in Iceland. Basically, the fishing grounds went from being a collective property of the people of Iceland to a privately owned entity. Everyone in Iceland knows this happened. Still, we are confused by it because our “fishing-law” clearly states that the fish around Iceland belong to the people of Iceland, when in fact it does not. As a result, it is a discombobulating thing. And for many reasons there is a distraction towards what happened – or why. So, our characters become the embodiment of the system. They become the system and the system becomes them. And through their personal journey we hopefully get a pretty clear view of what happened.

It’s a major thing, because the events changed the history of Iceland forever.

The series is an international co-production between Arte France and RÚV. Did this affect how you went about your writing process, specifically the kinds of scenes you were allowed to write?

Gísli Örn Gardarsson: No one ever said we couldn’t do this or that. Or write this or that. Even sticking amphetamine up someone’s ass was not challenged. There was nothing but superb support from everyone involved.

How is the writing process when approaching a story like “Blackport,” considering it’s based on a true story yet is one which is not well known outside of Iceland?

Björn Hlynur Haraldsson: We were all kids when these events occurred so our knowledge of the matter was childlike to say the least. We approached the writing in a way like outsiders and/or foreigners. And that meant researching everything and everyone who had anything to do with the quota laws during that time. We knew what the law was of course, but we did not know how it came about or why it ended up the way it did. We believe most viewers around the globe want to take a peek into a microcosmic world that they don’t know beforehand. We are intrigued by a terrifying accident in a nuclear power plant in the Soviet Union in 1986 as much as we are eager to follow a high school chemistry teacher in Albuquerque, New Mexico become a crystal meth drug lord.

There are plenty of cheeky laughs even among the dark and violent moments in the series. Did you set out from the start to tell the story with humour?

Björn Hlynur Haraldsson: Yes, that was always very clear to us. I mean, if you are about to tell a story about the politics behind fishing in a small pitch-dark town in the Westfjords of Iceland in the 1980s, there really has to be a humorous way to tell that tale. Otherwise it will most definitely become too bleak, in our minds at least. We always set on a kind of 50-50 balanced blend of darkness/drama vs. lightness/comedy. Also what we always aimed at was driving the story with a rather vast amount of tempo and energy. Every scene has to be there for the story. No scene can easily be cut out. And we asked every actor who worked with us to in a way take care of their character, so to speak.  If something wasn’t clear or if a character wasn’t human enough, we tried our best to give that character more life.

In “Blackport,” family and politics intersect and intertwine. How did you go about balancing the relationships in the series?

Mikael Torfason: In Iceland there are no six-degrees of separation. In 1983, when our story started, only 235,000 people lived in Iceland. Reykjavik, the capital was a town basically, with only 100,000 inhabitants. It is a country where everyone knows everyone, and family and politics are so intertwined that corruption would be the norm rather than something abnormal. We were one big family, with little or no diversity, and everyone was related. Fast forward twenty years and Iceland put up a website called the Book of Icelanders where you can go and write your name and find out how you’re related to just about anyone in the country. Me and Gisli Orn are related through his father and my mother, but me and Björn Hlynur are related through his mother and my father, and we went to the same school as children. So, I don’t know if we even tried balancing these relationships in the series. We just wrote it as we saw it. This is a pretty accurate picture of Iceland in the 1980s.

How did you approach writing a series between the three of you? What was the dynamic like?

Gísli Örn Gardarsson: We’d been working on it for some time, without finding the right tone. So, we’d binned a few drafts, but then we invited Mikael to the room and he got it and found the right tone of what we were after and wrote a draft. That’s when we got really excited and felt we were on the right path.

Mikael Torfason: Gísli and Björn Hlynur are not only great actors and directors but they’re also pretty good writers and really good dramaturgs. It was so great to work with them and their passion for the project was extreme. Like, really extreme. And when I saw the outcome, I was just blown away. It takes a lot to pull something this off, and the sacrifice that they have made both in the writer’s room and then by both starring and directing. I just can’t get my head around that, but I am so proud and grateful to have been a part of this journey.

I think a part of what I brought to the table was my background in journalism and my understanding of how Iceland works. Both in business and politics. “Blackport” is a realistic series and our scripts have a deep understanding of how everything works in Iceland. You need to mix that up with dramatic storytelling but this story is not only about the drama or the politics or the business but all of these things.

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