Interview with ‘Modus’ writers Mai Brostrøm and Peter Thorsboe

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Discover how the Emmy Award-winning duo adapted the latest Swedish crime saga

Mai Brostrøm and Peter Thorsboe are the renowned screenwriting team behind some of the acclaimed crime series at the forefront of the Nordic Noir genre. Beginning with Unit 1 starring Mads Mikkelsen, the duo went on to create The Eagle, The Protectors, The Team, and their fifth outing with Modus. During their illustrious career, Brostrøm and Thorsboe’s shows have been garnered with International Emmy Awards for Best Series for Unit 1 in 2002, The Eagle in 2005, and The Protectors in 2009.

Now, Modus has been brought to UK screens to deliver an early Christmas gift for Nordic Noir fans. We talk to Mai Brostrøm and Peter Thorsboe to find out more about what it has been like to adapt Modus from book to screen, their love of crime fiction, and how they have been inspired by our own British television dramas.

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At the start of every story and anecdote is the inciting incident. In this case, we wanted to know when Mai Brostrøm and Peter Thorsboe met or the writer’s own ‘meet-cute’ of sorts. “We met back in 2000. Peter was creating a new series called Unit 1 and I started writing some of the episodes. We found that we were working so well that we kept writing together and Modus is our fifth show. It’s been 17 years.” Are there ever any arguments about characters and storylines? “The whole time! [LAUGHS] We share the same vision but we have different ways of getting there. It’s often a good dynamic and good for the drama. We keep discussing until we match – in a good way!”

When it comes to delving so deeply into the mindset of a killer and creating an elaborate murderous plot, we had to ask what have been some of the major influences for their life of crime writing. “A lot of the Noir influence has come from writers such as Stephen King and filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock. We grew up watching a lot of crime movies and even the darkness of Dostoyevsky has made an impact. Also, a lot of British television which was so different to what we are used to here in Scandinavia. The most ground-breaking show for us to come from Britain is Prime Suspect. It really changed the way crime shows were made. It had a fantastic mixture of Helen Mirren as the heroine and well-written scripts. In a way, Prime Suspect inspired us very much.”

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Mai recalls a particular defining moment: “Before I went to film school as a screenwriter, I remember watching Dennis Potter’s last interview on the BBC. That made a great impression on me as he was a hero of mine. Even though his work is very different to how we write, Dennis Potter was one of the great ones. Of course, we also love Twin Peaks. It’s important not to be too inspired by other series! [LAUGHS] We have a rule that we are not writing like this TV show or that book. The world is full of crime shows so it can be very easy to write a script for a similar concept. It can get very boring and they all tend to look alike. When it comes to an adaptation, we try to create our own style from the basis of the book.”

The ‘whydunit’ is a very unique a perspective to the traditional ‘whodunit’, which is closer to Columbo than any other crime show that comes to mind. But how different is the TV series to the books? The writers tell us about the appeal of the story. “First of all, the killer is always very interesting to us. There is always a personal reason for committing a crime; the story behind it is interesting. When we first started writing Modus, Anne Holt was extremely generous. She told us that we could do whatever we liked to the story but we felt we had to respect the core of the book and the characters. She was adamant that we could change and add things if we wanted. In a way, it was fascinating to creep under her skin as a writer and still find our own identity. It wasn’t very difficult because we shared a similarity in how we approached the material. Of course, they are two different mediums – the books and the TV series. We had to look at the story differently and visualise how it could be told. It all felt very natural and Anne Holt liked it.”

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For those of us that haven’t read the books, we were curious to learn how Brostrøm and Thorsboe collaborated with author Anne Holt to adapt her novels. “We set the series in the present. While the past does have a big impact on the narrative, the major thing was to transfer the time-frame to take place in ‘the now’. That forced us to create new characters or to mention other characters by name. Fear Not – which Modus is based on – is number four in the Vik/Stubø series. We took the story from Fear Not but started somewhere else with the character development. We thought it would be nice for Inger (Melinda Kinnaman) and Ingvar (Henrik Norlén) to get introduced to each other for the first time in the show. Whereas, by book four, they are already married,” the pair discuss. “It’s difficult to remember what we added. We’ll have to go back and read the book again! [LAUGHS] Anne Holt writes a lot about politics in her books which is not always easy to put into the TV narrative. Not because of the issue but because there aren’t any lengthy scenes when characters can properly talk about it for 20 minutes. For example, with hate crimes, this has to be converted into action rather than speech. That is also a significant part of Modus – we show a lot of the hate crimes happening.”

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The social themes in the story are something that makes Modus stand out especially with hate crimes in the news, mainly due to the reactions around the world after the US presidential election and Brexit. “Well, we wrote the scripts before we knew Trump was elected! [LAUGHS] When we were writing the first season of Modus, Russia was particularly negative about hate crimes and homosexuality. There were a lot of issues at that time and here in Scandinavia as well,” the writers recall. “But, of course, it’s very relevant now with President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. It’s very strange to write about an issue in a fictional context and then you suddenly realise how ‘of its time’ the narrative actually is. We experience that a lot; when we write about one thing then it happens. Maybe it’s related it an issue that you hear more and become exposed to more than you normally do once it’s in your mind and written down. There are so many hate crimes in reality all around us. It’s frightening.”

Read our interview with Melinda Kinnaman here.

In our interview with Melinda Kinnaman, she mentioned that some language was changed during the research stage of her character to add a bit of authenticity to the drama.“We know the core of the story before we write the dialogue but we have people around us to help in our research. With Melinda’s character, Inger, we have a very close friend who is a psychologist that we often consult with. We also collaborate with the police to read through our scripts for advice and they offer us new ways of describing things,” Brostrøm and Thorsboe explain. “It’s very interesting for us because we are both fascinated by police work and psychology. We like to research but it is fiction and drama so we sometimes find a different way of presenting it. With the dialogue, we are writing in Danish which is translated into Swedish and English so you lose a bit of what is said each time it is translated into another language. Fortunately, we understand Swedish very well so we can tell if the translation is right! Danish and Swedish are very close but one word in Danish can have a completely different meaning in Swedish. We have to be careful checking the details and we are also the foreigners in Stockholm! [LAUGHS] We communicate clearly with the cast and crew so we all understand what is happening in each scene. It is generally easy but it can be difficult because ultimately we are speaking different languages.”

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If we take a look at the International Emmy Award-winning show The Eagle as well, the series focuses on an Icelandic detective in the Danish police force investigating international crime. Inter-Nordic politics seems to be a recurring theme in Nordic Noir. “It’s very much a representation of Scandinavia these days. In Denmark, Sweden, and Norway we look so much like each other. However, when you look deeper into the cultures we are very different,” Brostrøm outlines. “When we wrote The Eagle, the characters put into perspective that we are all part of Northern Europe; connected and joined together by the Scandinavian Peninsula. However, because we are different it’s also a contradiction. Nordic cultures are featured in almost every series we have written. This idea relates back to the fascination with Nordic culture as a whole; from Nordic mythology, and the Nordic Sagas as well.”

When penning the scripts for each of the eight episodes of the television series, the pair were also involved during the filming process. “We were more involved during the production of Modus than we usually have been. When we are writing the scripts we talk a lot with the director and the producers. It’s also very important to speak with the actors to gauge an understanding of their character.  After that, we’ll turn up in the editing room now and then. It’s important to trust each other; pass it over, and let them make it even bigger and better [LAUGHS] Everybody on the set is a storyteller and it’s important to release that energy into the production. As long as it’s not going in 20 different directions!”

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Each of the shows Mai Brostrøm and Peter Thorsboe have written feature recognisable faces from other Nordic television and cinema, including renowned actors Mads Mikkelsen in Unit 1 and Lars Mikkelsen in The Team. We wondered if the pair has certain actors in mind when formulating their characters. “It differs. We thought we knew who would be playing the lead characters in Modus but it eventually changed. It doesn’t matter. In a way, it’s better to have an image of the actor and work from there but on the other hand, it’s not necessary,” the pair admit. “We love writing the second season because we not only know who is playing the character; we know how they are attacking the role. You can build upon the development between the actor and the writer. That’s a very interesting process because they give a lot back to us by their acting style and way of approaching the character. It challenges us to make the show better. Years ago, working with Danish production companies, we had a different creative process. When episode three was being filmed, we would be writing episode four – the production was just behind us in our schedule. This stretched us but we could see how a scene was filmed from the editing room and see how to develop that in the next episode. There was a huge energy at that time – even more so than now. It was very stressful to be just ahead all of the time, though. [LAUGHS] It’s like writing in front of a train!”

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There is a noticeable amount of spoken English with the assassin Richard Forrester (Marek Oravec) and Inger’s American contacts at the FBI. Was the use of the English language in Modus a conscious reason to allow the series to travel more? “This was actually part of the story already in the book. We discussed whether we should change it to be solely Swedish. However, we liked how it showed the different cultures and the hate crimes are universal,” says Brostrøm. “Anna Holt is extremely inspired by America – I think she’s lived there and loves the USA very much. The location is very present in her novels. Our series Unit 1 and The Eagle travelled well to English-language audiences as well. We live in such a small country that we have to invite other people to come and work with us. It helps us to learn by including other cultures and languages in our productions.”

To what extent has the global appeal generated by Nordic Noir and the prestige of the Emmy Awards affected the writers’ careers? “We’ve definitely noticed it more and we have never been short of work! It is easier to get our projects financed after winning International Emmy Awards. Although, it can be intimidating and every day we have to tell ourselves that it is a brand new day. We have to put it aside. We are very proud but we have to keep creating something fresh and new,” confess Brostrøm and Thorsboe. “The hype about Scandi television is very good at the moment but we also know that the popularity is only for a period of time. Then France will be the next fantastic hot-spot, you know? That’s how it is – it’s all about enjoying it while you still can.” Despite it being a controversial statement – remakes may fuel the longevity. “As a writer and creator, I would want the original to be a stand-alone series. On the other hand, this happens a lot in the media and you pass the torch over to someone else to see what they will do with it. It’s a very generous gesture for a series to be remade. We don’t know if it will happen with Modus!”

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What can we expect from the second season of Modus? “We can’t tell you anything about the actors who will be starring in the next season. What we can mention is that the third book, Madam President, will be the next adaptation. America will also be prominent in the second season. We can also say that audiences will get to know more about Inger’s past; her time in Washington working with the FBI and more about why she came back to Sweden. It’s a heavy story!”

Words and interview by Antony Smith

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Modus is available to buy on DVD and Blu-ray from the Amazon store here.

Download Modus on digital HD via iTunes here.