Paul Risker chats with Follow the Money writer Jeppe Gjervig Gram…
“Back when we did Borgen everyone told us that it would not be possible to take boring Danish coalition politics and make it into a drama – it couldn’t be done” remembers series writer Jeppe Gjervig Gram. From the drama of Danish politics that was lauded by critics and audiences alike, Gram went onto the new challenge of corporate crime drama Follow the Money. Yet the creator and writer of Nordic Noir’s only white collar crime drama series acknowledges the importance of Borgen, that instilled in him a confidence by achieving that which was said to be impossible. “Somehow we managed to and inspired by that experience I felt that we could do it with finance as well.”
The second season continues shortly after the events of the first. While Gram transposes the setting of the major company of series one with the bank, featuring shades of The Royal Bank of Scotland’s Dash for Cash scandal, he offers a powerful portrait of the intimacy of idealism and corruption.
In conversation with Flickering Myth, Gram reflected on how TV has become central to his writing career and the transformative experience of the long form drama. He also discussed his desire to tap into the events of the financial crash and explore the role of finance in our contemporary society, and his hopes for a transformative response from the audience.
Why a career as a writer? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
When I was younger my dream was to direct feature films. Since I was nineteen, I had been spending all my money on my own low budget short film, while I earned money working at the big Danish broadcaster TV 2. But when after some years I was promoted and started working in the acquisition of foreign TV series, something changed. Watching all those series that the Americans were doing at that time had a huge impact on me. It coincided with the cable explosion in the US in 1999, the birth of HBO – The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and so forth – and back then even the networks did fantastic and very ambitious shows like The West Wing and Homicide: Life on the Streets. It was obvious that so much was going on in TV that was interesting to a storyteller, unlike the American feature film industry which I thought seemed a bit dull back then in their choices of subjects. It seemed like TV series’ were so much more grown up and I was so inspired by that, and I was also provoked by the fact that in Denmark it seemed that no one really realised it at the time. Everybody was talking about stupid American TV shows and even in the cultural sections of the biggest papers, people were constantly looking down on TV. So I really started to become interested in how those shows were created and I stumbled upon a behind the scenes show about Friends. That was the first time I had a glimpse into a writers room, and I saw ten or twelve of the most brilliant young writers story-lining an episode – it looked like the most fun, creative room in the world to be in. I then just had the bug and I knew I wanted to write more than direct, and I knew that I wanted to do TV more than features. So I applied to film school and the writing department had a great collaboration with DR TV, and DR at that time was inspired to try to do TV the way that it was created in LA. So it all made sense and luckily I got in. One of the old senior producers here at DR, Sven Clausen – one of the two grand old men of Danish TV drama – was luckily in the group that was reviewing the potential student applications. When I said: “I’m not here to do films, I’m here to do TV”, I think he knew I was the guy for him.
How do you compare and contrast the cast of characters in Follow The Money to the characters that preceded them in your previous work?
I obviously think they have a lot in common, but there are certain and very conscious differences. The character that exposes this point the most I think is Claudia. When we did Borgen we had the very cynical and very dark character of Kasper. The other two major characters were female, but they were both so idealistic. They had their flaws of course, but they almost never did anything that was meant to harm people or was selfish. Birgitte and Katrine were so nice and when you talk about equality between the sexes, I thought it was wrong that we weren’t able to portray women being as cynical and as egotistical as Kasper. So it was important to me that Claudia be a much darker character than Birgitte and Katrine, but without being a femme fatale. I love femme fatales, but they seem to be designed for men to enjoy and fear at the same time. I wanted to portray a fully dimensional female character that didn’t have the same kind of constant moral compass as those Borgen women.
This moral ambiguity feeds into Follow The Money as a cautionary tale, that addresses both financial and human structures. The series looks at the weaknesses of the world of finance that are running in parallel to inherent human flaws, the two of which cannot be easily separated, if at all.
We knew that we wanted to deal with the world of finance, the way financial structures link us all and how it has almost become like a force of nature, but a man-made one. We also knew that we couldn’t separate that from the people because the greed that has constructed this world of finance is coming from inside of us. It’s coming from human nature and it’s not something that is found in only a few bad people – it’s found in all of us! So we had the premise that basically everyone is greedy, but if you want to make that a little more rounded, then we would say that everyone is greedy, but it’s how you deal with your own greed that makes you who you are, whether you are good or bad, or somewhere in between. To just say the financial crisis was the result of some bad bankers is overly simplistic. I definitely think there are people in very high offices in the banking world that should have been punished, but it’s not just them, it’s also all of us in the western world. If you owned a house or apartment up until the financial crisis, the rise in the value of what you owned was so extreme that for many people the value expansion was more that what you were actually able to earn. It was absurd and more of us should have said: “This cannot be true, there’s a flaw in the system”, or intuitively: This is not how the world should work and so something is wrong. But you don’t say that when you are becoming richer because of course everyone wants wealth. It was because of a flaw in the system and because of all of us that it was able to live on, and not just those bankers that exploited it.
There is a line by the Christensen character that is an indictment of the general lack of understanding of finance. I’d expand his criticism to also include democracy and religion. The understanding of democracy and finance by the majority of the population is an important check and balance.
Definitely! It’s a dream and it’s probably naive to think that, but yes, that is the deepest reason for doing a show like this. If just two more people become a little more interested in finance and don’t turn off the financial news, even if it is a bit boring – it always is – then we really succeeded with the show. As citizens we need to be interested in big finance simply because it is so fundamentally important to our lives – it is as important as understanding democracy.
But regarding that kind of awareness in a society, I’m afraid I am becoming more of a pessimist at the moment due to the way democracy seems to be developing. And democracy is still easier to understand than finance.
When we did Borgen, the starting point was the fact that people weren’t as interested in politics as they used to be, and Adam, the head writer felt that this was simply wrong. We felt we needed people to find politics interesting because it is too important not to be interesting and so we wanted to give them a glimpse into a world that would fascinate them, and make them interested. After the series aired, professors at the Copenhagen Business School actually conducted some form of sociological test and concluded that people who had watched Borgen, while they didn’t move from left to right politically, all of them became a little more interested in politics. That really made us proud. If just one person says to me that he’s more interested now in the world of finance or understanding how it’s all linked together, I will be very happy.
Earlier you spoke of how the human and the financial worlds cannot be separated. To many the financial world feels a sterile one that alienates more than it engages. As in Borgen, the human drama is what allows us to engage with the intellectual subject matter. It is an example of how to generate mass appeal you must first look to the roots of storytelling, perhaps the way the Greeks used comedy and tragedy to discuss ideas by way of entertainment.
Yeah definitely! It’s complex material and it’s actually quite difficult to use for a TV show. Back when we did Borgen everyone told us that it would not be possible to take boring Danish coalition politics and make it into a drama – it couldn’t be done. Somehow we managed to and inspired by that experience I felt that we could do it with finance as well. However as we got going it turned out actually to be even more challenging than coalition politics because at least politics has at its core physical discussions between people that are wrestling for power verbally. But modern finance has a lot to do with Excel papers and is something that mostly exists on a computer screen. The money is not necessarily real, most of the money in the world doesn’t exist anywhere other than in computer data. So you have to find a way to make the financial storylines engaging via the characters and their interactions, while still hopefully telling a credible story and version of the way money connects us all. So that was the constant challenge on this show.
You mention the difficulty of telling a story centring on finance. How much did you have to research to educate yourself in order to bring the world and its characters to life? And screenwriter Jeremy Brock told me: “The only person who deals with infinite choice, which is the most creatively exhausting thing in the world, is the writer.” What are your feelings towards the infinite choice of the writer?
We did a lot of research, we knew we had to and we did that with Borgen as well. I enjoy research a lot and for me the research I do for this show is not just for Follow The Money. I know it will be for all the things I write in the future because it’s something that has to do with the fundamental mechanics of society. It’s like when we studied politics for Borgen, this time with finance it’s something that I know I want to know, but I don’t know yet. So it’s not a problem for me to spend a lot of time researching and my co-writers, Anders August and Jannik Tai Mosholt and I did that, and it was very much from scratch. We were interested in finance, but none of us have any kind of a background in it. My father and his father were actually accountants, so in that sense I didn’t get too scared of the nomenclature. I’ve studied philosophy, I’ve studied film and media, but I’ve never studied anything financial. We had to really get to know that world because when you are writing it’s not enough to just know what will be in the script. You have to know a hundred times more because you have to sift through all the things that you cannot use to be able to tell a story freely for the characters. You have to know all the possible avenues they could take, even if you end up using only one of them in the script. It’s about knowing the landscape around them, and learning all of those things you will not use is what takes up so much of the time during the research. Of course that limits you creatively in the starting process, but I think your subject always limits you in some way and those limits are probably good. If everything is available then I think it’s harder to write. In film school our teacher was the late Mogens Rukov, who is a legend among film writers in Denmark and wrote among other films Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen. His tests always gave us very specific rules we had to adhere to. It was a story told in a certain room, with a certain group of people and she had to be this age, and he had to be younger, and one of them had to be a postman or whatever and so on. All those rules actually helped your imagination. So I liked the fact that I knew that this second season had to take place in a bank because the mechanics of the bank helps me. In that sense I actually like that it narrows down and it’s not a completely free form of imagination. I like to impose those rules of reality on myself.
Season two echoes the Royal Bank of Scotland fraud scandal. You mention how the decision to set it in the bank helped you, but how influential was the RBS fraud in shaping your ambitions for the series narrative arc?
We knew the first season was to be about fraud in a major company. It just seemed like a good setting to start out with as it’s a little more contained. But the real starting point for me with the series was the financial and banking crisis of 2008. And as I felt that we didn’t deal enough with banks in the first season, I knew that we were going into the banking world in the second. We started researching what kind of interesting big fraud stories there were in banking and we just stumbled across the Royal Bank of Scotland scandal, and were quite inspired by that. It just came with the research and then we thought we could use elements of it.
While the two seasons are connected, was Follow The Money always intended to be a two season arc?
It tends to be the way we work here at DR. The original idea I had together with Tobias Lindholm, who I’d worked with from film school and worked with on Borgen too. We asked our boss if we could maybe just do ten episodes, one season? She said: “No, I want two seasons”, which is very rare anywhere else but here at DR. Tobias then had to then leave the show because it wasn’t possible for him to commit to twenty episodes and I ended up pitching the show by myself. So from the get go it was two seasons. It says a lot about how unique it is to work here at DR. They believe so much in the writer, they put a lot of trust in you and try to give you maximum creative freedom. On top of that, they are not afraid of difficult subjects like boring coalition politics or finance. The only thing they don’t want to do is to redo former successes. There will never be a show produced here that’s trying to rip-off The Killing. It will be produced almost everywhere else it seems, but it’s not something for DR and that’s great.
Twenty episodes, two seasons, that’s serious. That is a lot of risk and a lot of trust. The flip side of this is that the maximum episodes the show will get is ten episodes more. The Killing was the one exception, they got twenty and twenty, but with Borgen, our show and with The Legacy, it is a maximum of thirty episodes. No matter how big a success the show might be, they will make you leave the screen so there is room for someone else because DR only do twenty hours of prime time drama each year, and that’s very little – even compared to our colleagues in Sweden. If for instance we kept doing Borgen and The Killing there would never have been any other show. It would be one season of The Killing and one season of Borgen each year, and that would be it. Fortunately DR want to explore new themes and new characters, and so by the third season you are done.
Filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?
It’s hard to tell and doing three seasons with DR is five years of your life. So all the grey hair in my beard is Follow the Money. It’s hard to tell what is what. It’s such a hard long stretch and it eats something of you. I’ve spoken to my creative colleagues at DR and it’s such a wonderful thing to do, you feel so blessed being here, but it’s also a dream and a nightmare in one – it’s really intense. There are times where you think you can never get through it and you can end up in dark places during that time. So it’s transformative in that sense because you go through something that is heavy.
In the end when you are in production and you are behind schedule with so many scripts, there’s nobody else that will help you do your job. You will be the nexus and that’s the big difference between being an editor or writer and being the show runner or the head writer. Basically in the end everything has to go through you, and so there will be no mercy. If you are on your knees and you’re crying, they are not going to hug you, they are just going to say: “Oh, you have to write.” And that makes you grow.
Follow the Money Season 2 was released on DVD Monday 10th April by Nordic Noir & Beyond.
Many thanks to Jeppe Gjervig Gram for taking the time for this interview.