Set to air on May 26 on the U.K.’s Channel 4, “Before We Die,” the latest production from Eagle Eye, marks an adaptation of “Innan vi dör,” the hit Swedish show of the same international title. The six-episode series eloquently translates the precise and effective narrative of the original.
Distributed by ZDF Enterprises, while the U.K. makeover heightens the pace, leaving out secondary plot, it explores far more deeply the series’ central emotional bond, ending up delivering a completely different take on the story.
Directed by Jan Matthys, the Bristol-set crime thriller tracks the investigation of a Croatian crime family, the Mimica, made by senior police detective, Hanna Laing after the disappearance of a fellow police officer Sean Hardacre who was also her married lover. Professional and personal life entangle even more inextricably as her son works as a dishwasher in the Mimica family restaurant, which allows him to work as an informant for Sean. This is a face-paced crime procedural with a large sen of peril and a focus on a broken mother-son relationship.
Co-headed by Walter Iuzzolino, best-known for Channel 4’s Walter Presents – a VOD service specializing in judiciously selected foreign-language content – Eagle Eye’s interest in adaptation underscores what Iuzzolino had already remarked at January’s Göteborg Festival in Sweden:, the ever growing market importance of IP.
Variety talked with Iuzzolino in the build-up to the show’s premiere on Channel 4.
As the first episode unfolds, it becomes clear that the adaptation is condensing the Swedish original’s action and finding its own more driven and focused pace, abbreviating moments from the original without losing the efficiency that they had. What were your guidelines when finding a new rhythm for the show?
Our main objective was to capture the powerful dramatic core at the heart of the original series and allow it to flourish by sculpting the story in a vertical fashion, without the distraction of too many unwieldy subplots. We decided to focus on the truly unique selling point, the dysfunctional relationship between mother and son playing out as a rollercoaster action thriller, and we removed all the outer layers of storytelling that were not related to that. It was a wonderfully inspiring process as the more subplots we removed, the more powerful the story became. On the one hand, our adaptation became a pure distillation of nail biting, adrenaline pumping action – on the other, by dispensing with unnecessary subplots and red herrings, the main characters were given more space to breathe, and the psychological depth of the narrative was greatly amplified as a result.
Of course when translating a show from another country a lot has to do with the idiosyncrasies between the two cultures. What elements were more difficult to translate to an English-speaking culture?
At its core, “Before We Die” is built around universal themes: the powerful but sometimes complicated bond between mother and son, the meaning of family loyalty, the impulse to defend our loved ones beyond moral boundaries. These elements were very easy to adapt and reconfigure as their emotional appeal to audiences isn’t culturally specific. The only tricky element that we immediately knew would not resonate with an English audience within an English setting was the story of the biker gangs, which are a recurrent trope of most Scandi crime thrillers. In Scandi fiction, biker gangs have a very specific resonance within the context of the criminal underworld in the same way that Mafiosi are a key iconic signifier of criminality in Italian series. However, this does not apply to the U.K., where biker gangs have a completely different cultural significance, so we knew that storyline would need to be removed – but the power of the central narrative spine was greatly enhanced as a result.
Could you comment on your decision to focus on the mother-son relationship, a decision that profoundly changes the adaptation, making it a vehicle for a different sort of thematic exploration.
When we started to adapt the series, it became immediately clear to us that this was a psychological family drama built around the architecture and grammar of a rollercoaster action packed crime thriller. The mother and son relationship was the stand out dynamic that attracted us to the concept, but we knew that this was only the entry point – and that at its core, the series was ultimately about the meaning of family. When we started analyzing the premise from that perspective, it became clear to us that the series was effectively putting two very different families against each other. That we had two mothers and two sons – engaged in a lethal battle of survival. It is like a mirror with two faces, and this dramatic symmetry became the key theme of our adaptation and allowed us to took the series in a completely different direction emotionally.
Both shows feel immensely different due to choices in editing, art direction and overall directing. One standout aspect of “Before We Die” is also its rich cinematography, that finds texture, depth and color in every set-ups….
We wanted to create a completely different visual universe from the original Swedish show – the original used a deliberately ‘street,’ hand held, paired back documentary style feel to bring a sense of rawness to the setting. We wanted our series to feel like a lavish movie – our inspiration was the elegance, glamour and visual richness of American thrillers of the 1940s. This is why we approached Jan Matthys, a visionary director who can stage incredibly rich, complex and elaborate tableaux but never at the expense of emotional authenticity and psychological depth. Jan believes in beauty as a vehicle for emotional truth, so in his hands everything from a dilapidated warehouse to a country lane becomes incredibly arresting and poetic. This creates a heightened reality, a harmonious aesthetic universe where the actors’ performances are amplified and captured with incredible sharpness.