I had a lovely chat with Hans Rosenfeldt, creator and writer of ITV’s hit crime series Marcella, which is one of my favourites this season! Read on to see what he said 🙂
You come from the world of Scandinavian crime television, which is quite beloved here in the UK. Were there any major differences between UK TV and Scandinavian TV? Any particular challenges at all?
There weren’t many differences actually. I thought it would be quite a different experience, but it was very similar to the ones I’ve had in Sweden – especially when it comes to what I do, the script process was very similar, with the different drafts etc. At a certain point the broadcaster comes in and starts giving us notes, then production is coming in, giving you notes, then meeting the actors… It’s all very much the same, I have to say. I think what was different was that the production itself was on a much bigger scale here in London than our production on The Bridge.
So what was it like on set for you? Were you on set for extensive periods?
I was, very little though. I was on set, I think, two times during the entire shooting. As with The Bridge – I’m never on set when we’re shooting that, either, because when they are shooting the first block, episodes 1-3, I’m writing episodes 4-6, and when they’re shooting 4-6 I’m writing 7 and 8. So I don’t really have the time to be there. When I do have time is towards the end, when they’re shooting the last few episodes. But then they’re starting the editing, and I’m in the editing room instead, where I’m probably more useful.
It sounds like an involved process though, you seem to have had a lot of say in what was going on. That must’ve been great for you creatively.
Yes, it is, but I have a lot of meetings where we talk a lot, especially with the director, so they’re on the same page as me and we all know what we want to create. Then I just leave it up to them and the actors to make it happen. And then I see the rushes, so if anything really stands out I can say “I didn’t really get that,” or in the worst case scenario, we can do a reshoot if it’s something I really disagree with. But that’s very very rare.
You’re also a crime novelist – now I’m particularly intrigued by all the interconnected stories in Marcella, and how everything comes together, slowly at first and then in a rush towards the end of the series. What can you tell me about how you went about constructing the story and the revelations of how they’re all connected, and who is responsible for what?
Well, in terms of writing the books, we don’t do that – I’m co-writing the books with a colleague, and we don’t do much of that kind of storytelling in the books. It’s what I do when I write for TV, and it’s just something that developed with the first series of The Bridge, where we set out to tell different stories about different characters, not necessarily knowing why we are showing these characters at a certain point, because it looks like they have nothing to do with the case. Then we just plot them in somewhere along the way, they are crossing our plotline with the case, and they either stay in or we leave them, after that. So that was something we wanted to try for the first series of The Bridge, and we kind of stuck with it afterwards because we liked that kind of storytelling. I kept the same sort of style for Marcella because I think it’s a fun way of writing, it’s a way of keeping the audience on their toes because you don’t get all the answers straight away, you have to wait for things to line up and you question things, like “why am I seeing this right now?” And then you start guessing, and that can be fun. It creates a sort of activity around your watching, instead of following the police, going from one witness or one interrogation to the other, and being introduced to the characters through the police officers. It also gives you some prior knowledge about the characters, so when the police meet them, you already know who these people are. So you get a lot of fun things to write, when you do multi-stories like I do.
Who was your favourite character to write in Marcella?
I don’t really have a favourite, I like all the characters. Well, Marcella of course, our lead – you have to love to write your lead, otherwise you’re in trouble. I really liked writing Marcella. I really enjoyed writing Stuart, as well, the ex-military guy with MS played superbly by Stephen Lord. He was really fun to write. I also liked writing Cara, the girl who sold sexual services on the internet – I liked that whole strand, actually. But I like all my characters. I love the Gibsons, I like the dynamic between them, like the fact the husband had a thing for his wife’s daughter – that was funny. Soapy, but funny.
I’d also like to touch upon Marcella as a character – fierce, tough, even dangerous, but also a mother and a woman. I find it extremely important to have a female protagonist with those qualities. Was that the same for you?
The lead in the story was always going to be a female character. I was pitched a very brief idea by my co-creator, Nicola Larder, a little over two years ago, and that was about a female character whose husband has left her, her kids are away, and she was a police officer and now she’s being brought back into the force. That was basically the pitch for it. So she was always going to be a woman. I enjoy writing female characters, especially characters who aren’t all that eager to please. You have to follow them for a while, and don’t immediately fall in love with them. I think it was the same with Saga [the lead character of The Bridge], she takes some time to grow on you, and it’s the same with Marcella, she’s not easily accessible like that. I think that’s fun and especially with Anna [Friel], who is a rather small person, it’s really fun to play around with that, because she doesn’t look dangerous at all. Marcella is very very committed, and like you said quite dangerous at times, and she doesn’t even know it herself.
That was a major source of fascination for me, actually; the idea of Marcella possibly having hurt someone, and the mystery around that which goes on for quite a few episodes. It keeps you guessing, which is awesome. There’s a lot of characters like this especially in crime fiction, but also on TV, but they are usually men, and we never really question that.
I think that’s very true. Sometimes you give character traits to men and the reaction is “yes, they’re men, they can do this, they are like this”. That’s how we expect men to behave. And when you do the same with a female character, you kind of say “oh, that was something new, I did not expect her to do that”. It’s always good to play with a little bit of gender perspective, even if we are more into character and it doesn’t really matter if your character is female this time. We never set out to give her traditionally male character traits. I think we did that more when we created Saga and Martin for The Bridge; we gave Martin a few more female character traits, you could say, and then gave Saga a more masculine frame – not so emotional, a loner, all male traits that we usually see in crime dramas. But we didn’t really think about that with Marcella, we just wanted to make a great character.
I think that’s why it works, and it’s really commendable that it wasn’t a conscious effort to make her more mannish. That’s how she is, and that’s great.
Yeah, that’s what I like to do, not really think about whether something is male or female behaviour. It’s all human behaviour, and at some point you might think “oh, I haven’t seen a woman do that in a while”, but it’s still all very much universal, human behaviour.
She also has quite complex relationships with others, and that’s part of her character: her husband, her children, also her relationship with work and how she’s not very good at taking orders and dealing with authority, but she works in law enforcement… Tell me a little bit about how you constructed her character, if you would.
I think, and this might sound like an easy way out, because it was always going to be a crime show with a female protagonist, we sat down and discussed how we can not make her Saga. Because people will make that comparison, whatever we do. So we tried to make her very different to Saga: first of all, she’s very emotional, she responds much more to emotion than she does to logic. We said “let her make some major decisions throughout the series based on emotion instead of logic”, first of all because Saga would never do that, and second because that is probably not going to be the best decisions she could possibly make, and that’s going to get her into trouble. And trouble’s always good dramatically for us, for our storytelling. So we made her emotional, and a little–well, more than a little–willing to bend the rules, again opposite to Saga. Where the rules are an obstacle to her, she waves them off. If she was told “don’t do this, it’s illegal,” if it would help her she would do it anyway. So I would say one of her main traits is that she’s determined, and nothing, not even the law, can get in the way of that. Of course, Saga would never do that; she’s also determined to solve crimes but she would never abandon her rulebook. Marcella doesn’t care much of that, she’s all about herself and she’s very determined. I think those are the two major things: she’s much more emotionally driven, and she’s willing to do pretty much anything to get results. You don’t need that many hooks for a successful character; you can have lots of little ones, but if you have one or two big hooks, that you can hang your character on, you can pretty much do anything if you stick to them.
Yeah, they come to life.
They do, and then you can add smaller things that won’t contradict the basis of the character, but that will add a bit more detail and nuance to her, like layers.
How was the reception of the show in the UK, and how do you expect the response to be when it premieres on Netflix for the rest of the world?
Hopefully they’re going to like it. I wasn’t around when the last three episodes aired as I was on holiday, so I haven’t caught up on press yet, but talking to ITV I understand that they were very well-received. I do keep an eye on Twitter, and saw that most people liked it, which is rare on Twitter I’d say… but then there were a few saying, “this was eight hours I’ll never get back, totally rubbish”… But I still thought, I made you watch eight hours though. You didn’t turn it off after two episodes, so you didn’t hate all of it. That’s all I can hope for as a writer, to keep people interested. And since the majority seem to be loving it, and about 10 or 15% are hating it quite aggressively, that’s actually the best result we could hope for. Instead of getting everybody to sort of like it, like “meh, it was okay”, and “nah, I didn’t really like it”, it actually evokes quite a strong reaction from people, which is great. So I think we did well, and I hope it’s going to work well on Netflix as well. Sweden, at least, are looking forward to seeing it on Netflix, as they haven’t seen any of it on air.
I think it’s a very bingeable show. I was watching it every week as it came out, and every week I’d be like “ooh, new Marcella is on! Sweet!” But if you’re able to watch it all in one go, it’ll be a great way to experience the show.
I think so too. It will benefit viewers to have all the stories of the different characters closer together, to keep in mind all the different people. If you watch 2 or 3 episodes, and you only see a character in one scene in each episode, it’ll be fresh in your mind. If you’re waiting a week between episodes, and especially since we have around 16 characters at play, you might go, “wait, who was that again?” But hopefully the cliffhangers will keep people watching, and hopefully everybody will enjoy it on Netflix immensely.
I hope so too. Do you have any plans for a series 2 yet?
I don’t know, I’ve been away for the last month so I haven’t really spoken to Tony [Wood, executive producer], who is the head of Buccaneer [Media]… He’s the one who will be talking to ITV, but I don’t really know what goes on in these talks. I guess they’ll tell me if they want a series 2.
Do you have a story in mind in case they do want to go ahead?
Not really, I haven’t worked out a story yet. I know there’s some things we have to take care of from series 1, which we didn’t really finish, so we’ll have to bring that into the mix. But you can always do a series 2 – you have your characters, and you bring bakc as many characters as you need, and then you bring in new ones to create a new story and a new world around Marcella. So if they want one, I’m sure we can give them one.
Well I hope they do. I for one would love to know what happens next in Marcella’s life.
I would too, actually. I’d love to know what happens next. She still has some major problems, her story is not resolved yet, so I would very much like to revisit Marcella.
Thank you very much for taking the time for this interview, and best of luck with the Netflix premiere.