(Article I wrote for Directors UK members on the recent General Assembly of the Federation of European Film Directors, held in Malmö in September 2014
What does it take to produce drama of the quality of the Sweden-Denmark co-production THE BRIDGE, when the daily screen minutage on the series is as high as four minutes per day? It’s a question that’s at the heart of Directors UK current campaigning, as we push for better protection for British drama directors over working conditions and prep time.
The inspiring answer appears to lie in the intense creative collaboration that exists on the series between the show’s writers and directors. That was the message from THE BRIDGE’s Creator and Lead Writer, Hans Rosenfeldt, addressing delegates at the annual FERA (Federation of European Film Directors) General Assembly, held this year in the Swedish city of Malmö.
Hans was speaking to us on a bus tour of the famous 8 km Øresund Bridge, the backdrop for some of the series’s most memorable setpieces. As we walked out across Peberholm (Pepper Island), a 4 km long artificial stretch that connects the bridge from Malmö to a tunnel running into Denmark, Hans described how the Conceptual Director on the series (a role similar but not identical to Lead Director in the UK) effectively becomes a co-creator who works with the writers several months ahead not only on casting, but on the complete series look and tone. The Conceptual Director will be given access to early drafts, allowing them to ask questions as a shared vision is formed. Then, once the final draft is locked, the Director enjoys a minimum eight week prep before going to camera. As Hans said, “the more it is a shared vision, the more likely the film is to be what you imagined it to be.”
In case that sounds too much like a vision of Utopia, veteran Swedish Director Harald Hamrell (BECK, REAL HUMANS) told us about the increasing pressures on directors in TV drama there over schedules and budgets, with the amount of screen time to be shot per day on a continuous rise. “There is a growing trend towards a showrunner-type culture in which directors are regarded as guns-for-hire rather than central collaborators,” he told us. But Harald was clear that the only way to preserve quality when schedules are tighter is a system which protects directors from late scripts and gives them adequate prep time.
We also heard from legendary Danish Director Søren Kragh-Jacobsen, the Conceptual Director on the first series of BORGEN. With a tight budget, Søren insisted that all locations on the show were contained within a 500 m distance of base, and entertained delegates with tales of his battles with the controlling Danish Broadcasting Corporation who wanted to vet every choice, right down to the actors’ shoes! Søren said “you have to be tough, and enter character as ‘The Director’.”
He described how he fought to cast Sidse Babett Knudsen – then known only as a comedy actress – in the role of the Danish Prime Minister. Finally, when things got too much, Søren told his producers “Why have you hired me and paid me all this money if you all know better than me. Why do you need me?” Fired and re-hired later, he helmed the series to its stunning international success.
Søren warned about turning directors into proletarians in a sausage-factory model of production – and how, as the daily page count rises, cinematic story-telling is pushed aside in favour of stories that are merely driven by dialogue. “They want to diminish us, but on set you are king, and whether the series is good or not is in your hands.”
Dan Clifton, Directors UK Board Member and FERA EC Member.