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Interview
How To Write Iceland’s Most Popular TV Show, “Trapped.”

How To Write Iceland’s Most Popular TV Show, “Trapped.”

York Underwood
Words by
Photos by
Art Bicnick

Published March 21, 2016

Trapped (Ófærð) is an Icelandic crime television series that has aired in France (France 2), Germany (ZDF), Norway (NRK1), Great Britain (BBC) and Ireland (RTÉ 2), with the American distribution rights purchased by The Weinstein Company.

Trapped (Ófærð) is Iceland’s most internationally successful television show and RVK Studio’s first major television project, with Everest being the studio’s first major film. Trapped is a crime series about a body found in a fjörd and a town snowed in by weather. It’s harsh, bleak and utterly Icelandic, but it has pulled in audiences around the world, trapping them in its beautiful isolation. This strange murder-mystery, in a small town in a small country, takes place where the weather is as much a character as a setting.

RVK Studios is any writer’s dream office: clean, well-lit, with a great coffee machine and both a foosball and a full-sized snooker table with the balls frozen mid-game. No doubt waiting for when the players need a quick mental break from all the creative stuff they get up to in here. I’m waiting and snooping around while Sigurjón Kjartansson, the head writer of Trapped, and Jón Gnarr, the comedian, writer and former mayor of Reykjavík, finish their meeting.

Both Sigurjón and Jón worked together as a comedy duo on the radio and on a hit sketch show on television, Fóstbræður. Now Sigurjón is the Head Of Development at RVK Studios, a company formed with Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur (Everest, Contraband, The Deep) and Magnús V. Sigurdsson.

Sigurjón is finally done his meeting and he takes me to see his writing office, which still has parts of the Trapped set–including the brown couch constantly slept on by one of the main characters. After a few minutes looking at the couch and pieces of wood that used to be the set, Sigurjón leads me to a nearby coffee shop, Café Haiti, for the interview.

Sigurjón Kjartansson

Where did the idea for Trapped come from?

Baltasar came up with this great idea: a body is found in a snowy town in a fjord and the town gets locked in. Nobody can get in and nobody can get out. Which is, someone has said, an Agatha Christie idea. The mansion whodunit without the mansion. We saw this as a very strong concept.

Baltasar, Magnús V. Sigurdsson and I started RVK Studios. We knew a crime show was something that we should do. I come from television. Baltasar had made successful Icelandic films and was finishing Contraband at the time. We wanted to do a ten-part series and we wanted to do it outside of Reykjavík. So far, the crime shows I had done were all set in Reykjavík. They were like any other city-based crime show. If we wanted to do something that got attention we would have to play with Iceland’s nature thing.

Iceland’s nature is not flowers and pretty birds. It’s bad weather and snow.

Once the idea was out there, what was your role in making this show a reality?

My job was to bring in writers and head-write the show. I brought in two Icelandic writers, Ólafur Egill and Jóhann Ævar Grímsson. We worked for months mapping out a storyline. Then we drifted apart and I was alone for a while writing the show. We were commissioned by RÚV and there was some interest in Scandinavia, but still we, RVK Studios, knew if we were going to make this series, we would need co-producers from Germany and France, because those are big markets. Eventually, we succeeded in getting producers from Germany and France involved. They came in as pre-buy and we knew, finally, we had the official green light on the series.

I started to work with Clive Bradley, the english writer. We formed a little writers’ room with Klaus Zimmerman, the executive producer from Germany and the script editor from France, Sonia Moyersoen. We mapped out two episodes at a time. While we were pre-production I was getting scripts from Clive and then finally the last shooting script was something I took and translated and made rewrites. It was a very happy cooperation.

“When Clive was writing ‘He opened his umbrella…’ I could be like ‘No! No! No! People in Iceland don’t use umbrellas.'”

Trapped is a very Icelandic show. How was it writing with foreign writers?

It was interesting to work with foreigners on this show because they were able to bring the perspective of what is really ‘Icelandic’. I am so inside it that there are things I wouldn’t notice. They could see things I never saw. And vice-versa. When Clive was writing “He opened his umbrella…” I could be like “No! No! No! People in Iceland don’t use umbrellas.” It’s not practical with the wind here. Also, having long drinks when you get home. You’d have to be an alcoholic to do that in Iceland. We made the lead character drink milk all the time as a joke, a little detail.

Sigurjón Kjartansson

You started your career in comedy. How is it different being a dramatist? 

When I first started writing drama, I really felt it was easier than comedy. My comedy writing had been sketch shows. I feel drama is writing lots sketches into one narrative and they don’t have to be funny. It’s just scenes, which have to have, as a good sketch has to have as well, a beginning, a middle and an end. My education in comedy suits me very well in drama.

Many of the actors seem like they were made for their role. Did you have which actors you wanted to use in mind while writing the series?

We had the lead actor in mind. Baltasar and I, when we were thinking this through and dreaming about this series, decided we should choose the lead. There were a few names being tossed around and Baltasar suggested Ólafur Darri who Baltasar had worked with on “The Deep.” It was no question. I could see he was growing as an actor and I was very excited to work with him. I always saw the character as this man with a great beard. It just clicked.

Our casting method was quick and easy. We had been writing the show for quite a while and mapped out the characters, making them three-dimensional, and then we had to find out which actors were these characters. We typecasted like crazy.

Typecast is a good thing, actually. It’s what acting is about. Good actors reach inside themselves to be able to perform. The groundwork is already there. We don’t need someone to pretend. We just need someone to be the character. That’s why it was so easy once we went into production. Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir, we casted as Hinrika. If you met her right now, you would probably trust her to do some police work.

“If you want to be creative, you have to be a good collaborator. That’s your duty.”

The police have made a few criticisms about the show, but shortly after making the statements, there was an actual case of human trafficking in Iceland.

This is what happens all the time–especially in crime writing. We write a show, it airs and a little while later it is found to be happening for real in the news. It’s ridiculous. The police have some criticism, but they weren’t big criticisms. They enjoyed the show. They just thought they would have done a better job, if they were in that situation. It’s like if we made a TV show about a shitty writer and I, as a writer, would be like ‘Ahhh! Writers would never do that!’

However, I’m not saying the characters were shitty police officers. They were working in very bad conditions. There were no forensics people there. There was no hospital functioning. There was nothing there you could turn to for help. There’s just these three cops. Actually, they are out-of-town cops. The good thing is Andri, the lead character, has some experience.

When writing the show did you think about catering to an international audience?

Mostly, you don’t think about that too much. You just think about being true to the characters and the setting. This is happening in Iceland, but it’s universal. A small town is universal. I would say that a small town in Iceland is not that different from a small town in America. However, the conditions are extraordinary and there are some different traditions–but it’s still not a matter of nationality too much.

Are you working on anything new?

We are always developing something new. I’m starting a new series called Katla. I hope that it will take off, but it’s still in the early stages of development. RVK Studios makes Icelandic material that can travel. We just focus on doing good work and that will travel. I believe in good cooperation between talented people. That’s what’s worked throughout the whole of my career.

Creative juices are flowing all the time and if they are allowed to flow, positively, the result will be good. I’ve studied this. I’ve always wanted to be a showrunner on a project like Trapped, with multiple directors and things. I’ve learned one thing for certain: the happier the writers’ room is, the better the series will be. And vice versa. If you have a writers room that is strained, with ego problems and things like that, the series will suffer. I believe that goes for all creative work. No matter what you’re doing. If you want to be creative, you have to be a good collaborator. That’s your duty.


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