Interview with ‘Follow the Money’ creator Jeppe Gjervig Gram

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Find out more from the creator and writer of DR’s award-winning financial thriller

Follow the Money basked at the awards ceremonies after the first season aired on UK screens, claiming the title of Best Non-English Language Drama Series at the 2016 C21Drama Awards in London. Earlier this year, the winning streak continued with six Robert Prisen wins, including Best Actor for Thomas Bo Larsen, Best Supporting Actor for Esben Smed and Best (Long) TV Series for DR, director Per Fly and creator/writer Jeppe Gjervig Gram.

“It has been a wonderful experience. It was special for us to win at the C21Media Awards. We were just hoping for a nice evening!” Gram recalls. “We were up against strong competition and didn’t expect to leave with a prize. With the Robert Awards, it is the Danish Film Academy of peers which presents the awards so, of course, that was a great pleasure too.”

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After the second season of Follow the Money aired on BBC Four in March, we have been on tenterhooks to discover how the characters in the show have developed.“Mads (Thomas Bo Larsen) is still in the fraud squad investigating routine cases – but he finds it hard to relate to those cases due to the amount of Excel spreadsheets and numbers there are instead of people to deal with! [LAUGHS] He even has to turn people away concerning cases that seem too small, including Hans Peter (Søren Malling), a local carpenter who claims to have been cheated by his bank. Mads is very frustrated with his work until Hans Peter’s case leads him and Alf towards a bigger mystery.”

Meanwhile, Claudia (Natalie Madueño) is back after serving time in prison for the Energreen scandal. “We thought it would be a great challenge for Claudia to get back on her feet, as there aren’t a lot of job offers for a lawyer coming straight out of jail! [LAUGHS] However, an old acquaintance gives her a chance to redeem herself.” Many of the characters are unpredictable in Follow the Money, especially Claudia with how she responds to morally dubious situations. “From the start, we wanted a female character with dubious morals. Before Follow the Money, I spent 5 years writing episodes for Borgen which saw the male characters embodying dubious character traits, whereas the females were very idealistic. It’s a lovely portrayal of women but it’s also strangely unequal. Why can’t women be deceptive and fickle – without being a Femme Fatale which to me really is a male fantasy.”

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“What we wanted to do was to have a young, professional female character like Katrine Fønsmark in Borgen, but this time around have her make controversial choices. This was the basic starting point of Claudia’s character.” We understand why Claudia reacts the way she does which makes her likable and relatable, but she is scary at the same time, in terms of her loyalties. “I agree. I wouldn’t want to date her! [LAUGHS] She’s fascinating and you could probably spend a lovely dinner with her but you probably wouldn’t want to let her into your personal life!”

Find out more from Natalie Madueño with our exclusive chat here.

The second season introduced new characters, Amanda (Sonja Richter) and Simon (David Dencik), to take the storyline in a fresh and compelling direction. “We knew we wanted to start the second season of Follow the Money with a new case and a new corporate storyline. We also knew from the beginning that Sander would be killed off. Nikolaj Lie Kaas was only available for one season because he is an immensely popular actor in Denmark, so it was very pragmatic too. When we met with Nikolaj, I said in the meeting that Sander would be shot by The Swede and he said, “Ah, now I’m completely content. I want the part!””

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Gram shares more about the inspirations to write about fraudulent corporations involved in crime. “The Energreen scandal was inspired by a huge corporate fraud case inside the Danish company IT Factory, which we translated from IT to green energy. The real starting point for the creation of the series, however, was the Financial Crisis of 2008/2009, so when we were coming into the second series it was too tempting not dive into the world of big banking. In this season, we also knew early on that we wanted Claudia to redeem herself by being involved with the ‘good guys’ or the idealistic guys, otherwise it would have been too derivative if she just found herself another Sander to work for.”

We wondered if Gram wrote any of the characters with actors in mind. “The characters of Amanda and Simon Absalonsen were written before we knew we could get Sonja Richter and David Dencik, however, when we first started casting, they were the first actors we called. We felt very lucky that they said yes. They’re both actors I admire a lot and I’ve always wanted to work with them.” Whereas, Natalie Madueño was still in film school when she was cast as Claudia. “We were very lucky with that too! Natalie is so very talented and we have a casting director with a very good eye for young talents. Both Natalie and Esben Smed were completely unknown at that time. Esben had only left theatre school a year before he was cast in Follow the Money. Now they’re both stars and for good reason!”

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To complement the stars of the show, the captivating narrative includes an intricate insight into the law, energy corporations and financial companies. “We spoke to many business lawyers and detectives from the fraud squad to help us research the show. From my experience working on Borgen, the series relied heavily on research to make the narrative both credible and live. I didn’t have any political training before Borgen and I don’t have any financial training but you have to know your story world. Once in a while we bring people into the writers’ room to tell them our stories and ask them what could happen if our narrative pitches aren’t credible.”

“We try to stay as close to reality as possible, although sometimes you simply have to cut corners. This includes speeding up some of the technical processes, for example in season one when Energreen went public with their stock market shares. That’s a very complex timeline which takes approximately 6 months and we had to compress the timeframe a little in order to tell the story. We only cut corners when necessary so the audience doesn’t get lost in our story. If we leave reality it won’t make sense to make a show that deals with society.”

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It is also interesting as the realism in the show reflects true events, which Camilla Hammerich, producer of DR Fiktion at the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, mentioned in our interview about Borgen. “There was a big case in Denmark which happened just before we premiered the first season of Follow the Money. It wasn’t the IT Factory case that inspired the series but a case in the energy sector which closely resembled Energreen! It was a bit frustrating for me that it happened just before we premiered, as we were already working on the scripts for season two when it was announced. It may sound a bit perverse for me to say, but it would have been funny to see a real-life fraud case broadcast over the news while Follow the Money was being aired! [LAUGHS]”

Read our interview in full with Camilla Hammerich here.

“We used a successful lawyer in Denmark to help us with research for Energreen going public before their financial collapse and he laughed us out of the writers’ room! [LAUGHS] He said, “That’s taking it too far guys, it’s not possible.” Shortly afterwards, the company OW Bunker which went public only a few months earlier filed for bankruptcy and our dear research lawyer emailed us to say, “Sorry I laughed guys.” I very much believe in research but also in pushing the storyline to the limit because if it can happen, at some point it will happen. You don’t want to look pale in comparison to reality. You know you’re on the right track if your researcher tells you it theoretically could happen, but surely never will.”

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As creator and head writer of Follow the Money, we wondered how involved Gram was on the set of the show. “I am heavily involved in all creative aspects of the show, from start to finish – but I’m not always on set. I’ll generally visit once per episode. I do not need to be there a lot because we spend a lot of time with the directors and actors before filming begins.  My effort is much better spent before and after shooting – in the writer’s room and in editing. We want the absolutely best directors for the job and it goes without saying that when you hire creative talent like that, you have to put trust in them and let them take responsibility instead of looking them over their shoulders all of the time.”

Follow the Money wasn’t something that we expected to be a global success because of Borgen; it was still made for Danish viewers. It’s so expensive to have a primetime show with a high production value so, first and foremost, I have to focus on the Danish audience.” Danish shows with a ‘Super Primetime’ slot at 8pm on Sundays, such as Follow the Money, are contracted to deliver huge primetime Danish viewing figures, around 1 million out of a population of 6 million people. “It has to be a local hit and if it is successful with audiences abroad it is a bonus. This also prevents any arrogance to aim shows at international markets! [LAUGHS] I think I would create a bad show if I thought that way. I truly believe our shows appeal globally by focussing so much on the local, on the world we know.  Although, writing about finance these days has to include an international angle because currency and financial systems are connected on an international scale.

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Can we look forward to a third season of Follow the Money? “It is all quite confidential, so I really cannot say a lot, but we have begun working on a storyline… In fact, I have notes scribbled all across the walls of the writers’ room about future character developments. I am very pleased with where we are with it – but I will not give away any spoilers!”

Words and interview by Antony Smith

Follow the Money – The Complete Season Two is available to buy through Nordic Noir & Beyond on DVD here.