‘Hostage’ Director Karen Fahlén, Star Jonas Karlsson on Subverting Gender Stereotypes in Swedish Thriller Series

Swedish thriller series “Hostage,” which is being distributed by Global Screen, centers on the hijacking of a passenger aircraft, and the arrest of a Syrian academic by Swedish intelligence agency SAPO. Variety spoke to the show’s director Karen Fahlén, and Jonas Karlsson, who stars alongside Liv Mjönes and Adam Lundgren.

The six-part series is a sequel to 10-part crime drama “Stockholm Requiem,” which was based on Kristina Ohlsson’s novels based around the detective Fredrika Bergman. Fahlén directed “Stockholm Requiem,” which also starred Karlsson and Mjönes. Karlsson (Tomas Alfredson’s “The Snowman,” “Black Mirror”) reprises the character he played in “Stockholm Requiem,” police chief Alex Recht, and Mjönes (“Midsommar”) reprises her character from the earlier show, Fredrika Bergman.

In the new show, we find that Recht has left the police force, and is driving a cab. He is shambolic, and his spirit appears to have been broken. “He’s in no-man’s land,” Karlsson says. “Life sucks. He’s hit the bottom.”

His son happens to be the co-pilot on the hijacked plane, so SAPO agent Eden Lundell brings him in to help with the situation, and – by chance – Bergman is also working on the case, although she is now working as a civil servant at the Swedish Department of Justice.

“And so, all of a sudden, he’s drawn into this, and forced to investigate this whole mystery,” Karlsson says. “And that’s what I found intriguing in this story: that he’s sort of drawn into police work, and at the same time, that’s his son up there, so he is emotionally invested as well.”

Recht struggles with a dilemma, Karlsson explains. He must decide: “How do I do my best? Should I ignore that I have a child who is on the plane, and just concentrate on my work, or … ? So I thought that was interesting.”

Although it is a sequel, the new show is different to “Stockholm Requiem.” That show was a crime drama set in a police station, but the new show is a thriller, set in the SAPO headquarters and the plane, Fahlén points out. In “Stockholm Requiem,” there were two episode per crime, which Recht and Bergman would investigate. “Hostage,” on the other hand, follows one case over six episodes, and the events unfold over 16 hours, so “it is quite a challenge to portray that,” Fahlén says. “And it is an extremely complicated plot.”

The screenwriter on the show is British scribe Max Barron, who wasn’t involved in the original show, and made it a more international story than the first show. Ohlsson, it is worth noting, used to work for SAPO, before she became a novelist, giving it an air of authenticity.

Although the complex plot was one attraction for Fahlén, a greater draw was the complicated characters. “I love character. That’s my reason for doing this really, because I’m interested in why people do what they do,” she says. “So, for me, it was great to follow these guys. And now it’s even more fun to see what happens to Alex in this situation, in a much more emotional than professional situation. Very interesting. Also, in this genre, to find the small moments of emotions that you normally don’t have in thrillers. So that was a challenge, but a very interesting challenge.”

Another challenge was to give each character a backstory that would feed into the action, rather than just observe their responses to events. “It’s character driven more than event driven,” Fahlén says. “And that always interests me, because otherwise, it’s just like a tableau of events. I’m more interested in the human side of things.”

Shows with more complicated plots and where the characterization is more complex are becoming more common, Karlsson says. “I think people want this kind of complicated plot, where you really have to think.” He adds: “I think what’s special about this one is that it’s so condensed into these 16 hours, although it also contains flashbacks.”

The tension is added to because the action takes place within two contained spaces – the SAPO office and the aircraft.

The flashbacks reveal a love story between two of the SAPO agents. That was interesting for Fahlén “because what are you prepared to do, or give, or share with someone you love? And can that be a double betrayal?” One of her inspirations for the show was “Homeland,” she says.

Getting to know Eden is a challenge, Fahlén says, as, “She is all brain. She is all work. She is a workaholic. And that’s what drives her. She doesn’t need a personal life.”

Fahlén inverted gender stereotypes in the series. “We worked within this character [Eden]. I pretended that she was a man. I didn’t put her in a skirt. I didn’t put her in anything that was too female, and I didn’t let her say your preconceived things that the woman would say in certain situations. She doesn’t break down. She thinks about jumping out a window, but she doesn’t cry, she doesn’t express your normal female behavior. She’s like a Terminator, really.”

Alex, on the other hand, is the “soft one,” Karlsson says. Fahlén adds: “He’s ‘the [stereotypical] woman’ in this. That’s the thing. And that’s so lovely. And he’s got a soft cardigan, he’s got slippers, you know, he’s vulnerable. He’s like a little bird coming into the situation. Yeah. Also, there were lots of characters that were men that we changed to women, because we do want to work with that as a woman.”

The result is that the viewer is kept off-balance, with the show defying conventional expectations. The same is true with racial stereotyping. Just because a character has a Muslim name doesn’t mean he could be a terrorist.

“The show is really playing with that stereotype thing,” Karlsson says. Fahlén adds: “Especially with the pre-conception of what a terror act is.” Fahlén reveals a plot spoiler to illustrate this point. “So that’s also interesting to play with: people’s stereotypical vision of what a terrorist act is, because I found it hard to begin with to make friends with a story about terror, you know, it feels … these days…”

There may be further seasons based around Recht and Bergman. “We are very intrigued with these two characters still. Yeah. I want them to start up their own thing,” Fahlén says, although there are no further novels to adapt from Ohlsson’s series of stories based around Bergman’s character.

The fact that Ohlsson used to be a Swedish intelligence officer herself gave her an insight into the workings of SAPO. However, the book the new series is based on, also called “Hostage,” was published in 2012 so had to be modified. “It felt for us we had to really reinvent the story because it felt maybe not up to date,” Fahlén says.

As well as drawing on the authenticity of the book, Fahlén did a lot of research herself. She met many SAPO agents and Sweden’s Minister of Justice to make sure the show was as realistic as possible.

Next, Fahlén is reteaming with “Hostage” producer Martina Stöhr on another series, which has yet to get the greenlight, based on an award-winning book. She also has a couple of features that are in development.

She may also work with Karlsson again, on a project based on one of his novels. (Karlsson has published seven books.) They have already collaborated on several projects, starting with “Stockholm Stories,” an adaptation of a collection of short stories by Karlsson.

Karlsson will next be seen in a series called “Riding in Darkness,” about a leading riding instructor who abused girls, based on actual events. The show is created by Ulf Kvensler, and co-stars Hanna Ardehn. The directors are Molly Hartleb and Julia Lindström. The production company is Jarowskij, and the series is distributed by Wild Bunch. The Swedish broadcaster is CMORE.

“Hostage” is a co-production between Sweden’s Kärnfilm and Belgium’s Lunanime. The Swedish broadcaster is CMORE.

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