Home Entertainment ‘Quake’s’ Tinna Hrafnsdóttir Talks Her First Showrunning Gig With ‘Descendants’

‘Quake’s’ Tinna Hrafnsdóttir Talks Her First Showrunning Gig With ‘Descendants’

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Seasoned actor Tinna Hrafnsdóttir (“The Minister,” “The Valhalla Murders”) has joined Icelandic counterparts Aníta Briem (“The Tudors”, “As Long as We Live”) and Nanna Kristín Magnúsdóttir (“Paris of the North”, “Happily Never After”), successful female actors who have made with panache the leap to screenwriting, sharing the distinction of a nomination for best screenplay of a Nordic drama series. 

Flying Iceland’s flag at this year’s Nordisk Film & TV Fond Prize, to be handed out Jan. 30 at Göteborg’s TV Drama Vision, Hrafnsdóttir is competing with her six-part family drama “Descendants,” co-written by Ottó Geir Borg (“The Valhalla Murders”) and Tyrfingur Tyrfingsson (“Wild Game”).

The TV show is her first experience as a long-form scripted director, following her feature film debut “Quake” which screened at multiple festivals and was acquired by Juno Films for North America and the UK.

The compelling story of sibling rivalry, loyalty and greed is set against the backdrop of Iceland’s booming tourist industry. We follow three siblings who end up at each other’s throats, competing for the legacy of a stunning summerhouse and the parents’ whale watching business. 

Each believes they should have a bigger slice of what should be equally shared. Hrafnsdóttir plays the eldest sister, alongside Þuríður Blær Jóhannesdóttir (“The Minister”) as her brother and Vignir Rafn Valþórsson (“Blackport”) as her younger sister. Hanna María Karlsdóttir (“Black Sands”) and Pálmi Gestsson (“Trapped”) are cast as the charismatic parents.

Immediately setting the dramatic tone of the series is the brooding score from Sveinn Geirsson (“Fractures,” “Trapped”) and camerawork from Konrad Widelski (“Undercover)” who in the opening credits zooms onto a wall covered by family portraits, suddenly going up in flames. 

The pic was produced by Iceland’s Polarama, Freyja Filmworks and Projects, in co-production with Belgium’s Lunanime, with Red Arrow Studios International handling global rights outside Iceland (Síminn) and Benelux (Lumiere Group).

Variety talked to Hrafnsdóttir ahead of the Göteborg Film Festival television confab TV Drama Vision, running Jan. 30-31). 

How and when did you come up with the idea for this show, which takes us straight into Bergman territory and echoes some of the best family dramas-such as “Bloodline” and “Succession”?

Hrafnsdóttir: I started working on it in 2017, the same year I started working on my first feature “Quake”, which also tells a story about a dysfunctional family. My drive as a storyteller is to dive into the core of who we are, the bonds that shape us the most, the complications that blood or family relations can cause.
“Descendants” is slightly based on my own experience, although the story and the characters are entirely fictitious. Some years ago, a summerhouse my grandparents built burned down, a house where I spent quite some time with my parents as s child. This drastic event gave me the idea for the frame of the story, to write about circumstances that revolve around a house. But as the story goes along, the viewer finds out that the frame, the house and the family’s whale watching company, only serve as metaphors for something much deeper within the family, a kind of a testimony about their upbringing, feelings and wounds.

How was your first experience as a showrunner?

Hrafnsdóttir: For me, serving as the creator, head-writer and director, the showrunner role was a vital one. In Iceland showrunners are not as common, so traditionally, the director assumes that responsibility. However, in this project, wearing multiple hats seemed not only practical but essential. As the head-writer I ensured the narrative coherence between Ottó, Tyrfingur and me. As the director, I sought to bring that narrative to life in a way that aligned clearly with my vision, and being the creator, it was crucial for me to maintain a holistic control over the project. So in essence, to unify these creative aspects seamlessly, it made sense to take the role of the showrunner, but of course it was a challenge.

How was the writing process with co-writers Ottó Geir Borg and Tyrfingur Tyrfingsson and what did they bring to the table?

HrafnsdóttirThey contributed significantly and I’m very pleased with their work. The journey commenced in 2017 when I approached Otto, introducing him to the concept, the family, and the narrative surrounding the inheritance issue and the summer house’s burning. He was interested and joined the project so our collaborative writing process began, with us dividing the episodes and revising each other’s work.

The storyline underwent numerous twists and turns, and we introduced the whale-watching company into the narrative. However, at a certain point, Ottó had to step away from the project due to another commitment, leaving me alone with the writing process. When I sensed that the scripts were almost finalized but not quite there, I reached out to Tyrfingur for the final writing run-through. His mastery in satirical humor and in-depth sarcasm added a flavor that I thought was crucial for the project. As the saying goes, scripts aren’t ready until they are ready, and for me, having well-developed scripts before entering the shooting phase is absolutely paramount. 

In what way do you feel this Icelandic family saga and story of three siblings entangled in a whale watching inheritance dispute will appeal to an international audience?

Hrafnsdóttir: The summer house and the company only act as the frame of the story. It’s first and foremost a character-driven family drama built on conflicts many of us can relate to. But to make it real, the actions and decisions these characters make are sometimes quite ludicrous. All people can at times make foolish decisions, but the way the three siblings handle the legacy situation exposes their true nature and self-absorption, in a way that you probably won’t like them at all. But when you find out more about their background, why they are the way they are, it forces a current of understanding and sympathy for them as well. People from all over should be able to relate to what they are going through, for family issues are for sure international.

Can you say a few words about your character, the ambitious eldest sister Arndís?

HrafnsdóttirShe is the one who took all the responsibility during her youth while her parents were occupied with their careers, conflicts or partying, a situation unfortunately common for the eldest sibling. She embodies ambition, a cutthroat businesswoman projecting a tough exterior. Yet her emotional life is in disarray, entangled with toxic relationships that leave her feeling lost. The complexity of her character resonates with me, and I believe taking on this role was the right decision.

Could you expand on the tone which is altogether dark, reflective and satirical?

Hrafnsdóttir: Family issues, by their nature, can be very dark and cynical. With this tone, we aimed to capture the various shades of life, its complexities, struggles, and the ironic nature of how families sometimes navigate through what they share, or are supposed to share. In essence, the tone serves as a narrative tool to explore the multilayered and often challenging dimensions of family life, reflecting all its vivid and realistic colors.

As a filmmaker, what were your visual inspirations and what were the biggest challenges during the shoot?

Hrafnsdóttir: I find it very important that my visual inspirations stem from the inherent storytelling within the frame itself. Therefore, I carefully prioritize what elements are placed in it and what intentional gaps I leave to engage the audience’s imagination. Colors play an important role in my visual language; for instance, the unconventional choice of dark walls in the summer house, a departure from the Icelandic norm, was crucial in creating the atmospheric tone I sought. Symbols and metaphors also hold significant weight in my visual storytelling. Take the large tree in front of the summer house. It becomes a silent witness to a prolonged disagreement between the parents, a narrative layer not explicitly witnessed on screen, and the onset of autumn, symbolizing death, contributes to the visual depth of the story.

During the shoot, one of the biggest challenges was translating these visual elements effectively onto the screen. It was a delicate dance between maintaining familiar visual norms and pushing creative boundaries.

The show was co-produced by Belgium’s Lunanime and co-financed by Red Arrow Studios International. When did they come on board and how essential have been their financial contributions?

Hrafnsdóttir: They came on board at the financing stage. They really liked the scripts and saw global potential in it as the story not only draws a clear picture of two different generations but also gives a glimpse into the Icelandic touristic ‘goldrush’ which rose shortly after the banking crisis and gave our small nation of 400,000 an opportunity to rise after downfall. Their financial contribution at this early stage was vital for us in so many aspects.

What are your personal views on the booming tourism industry which accounts for around 6% of Iceland’s GDP, and do you approve of your Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir who has turned to taxes to curtail the impact of tourism on nature?

Hrafnsdóttir:The tourism industry became a desirable goldmine for many but at the same time it’s undeniably a reality that demands responsible management. I don’t have a strong opinion on it but I think that the Prime Minister’s approach reflects a necessary stance for reserving the beauty of our landscapes and maintaining the ecological balance which is vital for us. It’s always a delicate balance between reaping the economic benefits of tourism and ensuring the preservation of a unique natural heritage.

You are the third Icelandic female actor nominated for best screenplay of a Nordic series after Nanna Kristín Magnusdóttir in 2020 with “Happily Never After” and Anita Briem in 2023 with “As Long as We Live,” who both brought very personal stories to the screens. Is this a particular trend in Iceland, or just another example of empowering female stories now reaching global screens?

HrafnsdóttirWhen a project draws inspiration from a personal story it adds another dimension to the narrative in my opinion. Stories written by females tend to be quite personal and for them, making their way onto global screens are very important, coming from Iceland or not. By weaving elements from real experiences into the storyline, we contribute to the diverse and powerful representation of women’s narratives which is important.

What’s next for you?

Hrafnsdóttir: In my next project I will only direct, which will be a thankful change for me, but I really find it a privilege to be offered to step into a project someone else has created from the beginning. In March Björn Hlynur Haraldsson and I will direct “Vigdis,” a four-part drama-series based on the inspiring true story of the first woman in the world to be elected president, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir. The show is produced by Rakel Garðarsdóttir, Ágústa Ólafsdóttir and the talented group of Vesturport. I really look forward to that one.

I’m also developing my second feature, but unlike my debut “Quake” the script will be based on my own original idea. The concept of the film will be presented in the Discovery program at the Göteborg Film Festival which is also a great honor. Another series is also in the pipeline, so there are exciting times ahead for me.