Josephine Bornebusch Talks Harmonica

Screened at Berlinale last week, Harmonica, Viaplay’s latest Swedish-language original production, tells the tale of a once successful country music duo who set out on a revival tour as they face a marriage at the edge of combusting. Written by and starring Josephine Bornebusch and Jonas Karlsson—who also penned all the music for the show—the five-parter from Warner Bros. International Television Production Sverige is being rolled out by Nordic Entertainment Group’s content-sales arm. Bornebusch spoke to TV Drama about co-writing the show with Karlsson, directing herself and her widening relationship with Viaplay, which began with her hit series Love Me.

TV DRAMA: Tell us why you wanted to tell this story.
BORNEBUSCH: Jonas [Karlsson] and I have worked together as actors in different productions for many years. He’s also a writer. We started to talk about writing something together. He’s been in a long relationship with his wife; I’ve been in a relationship for 13 years. We said we wanted to create something about old love, not someone falling in love or in the middle of a divorce. Later in the season, we reveal some tragic moments in their relationship. How can you cope with that? And can you connect to each other again, or is it over? But I had so much to do, and he had so much to do. I lived in New York for a year and went to a concert for a Swedish band called First Aid Kit, who play Americana/country music. I said this is the arena for this project. I went home that night and emailed [Jonas] and said, What if it’s an old country duo, who were big 20 years ago, in their careers and love, and now no one remembers them, and they don’t see each other anymore? Visually it’s such a beautiful arena for a show, with cowboy boots and dresses! He came back and said, That’s spot on, let’s do it. That’s how we started.

TV DRAMA: How was the co-writing process?
BORNEBUSCH: Every time I write something, I write it as I would say it as an actor. When we wrote the scripts, it was one word and dot dot dot. We don’t end a sentence; we end each other’s sentences. And in this project, we were so blessed because we wrote it together, in the same room. We could rehearse the scenes before we wrote them.

TV DRAMA: How much of the arc did you have mapped at the outset, and how much evolved during the writing process?
BORNEBUSCH: We had a vague arc. We knew that we wanted her brother to be the old manager. They asked him when they were kids, and then all of a sudden, he’s old and clueless, but blood is thicker than water. It was supposed to be six episodes. Covid came, and we had to put it in a drawer for almost a year. During that year, I rewrote the whole show down to five episodes and compressed the story. I woke up in the middle of the night and I emailed Jonas and said, This is the reason they are struggling. He doesn’t want to go back in time [with the reunion tour]. He doesn’t like who he was at that time. She needs to do something. She’s stuck in a small room. Either we try to live up, or we give up and divorce. That’s what this series is all about: Why he doesn’t want to go back, and why she needs to. Then it all fell into place. This is why we wrote the series.

TV DRAMA: How do you juggle those multiple hats of creator, writer, actor and director?
BORNEBUSCH: It sounds like a lot! To be honest, sometimes it’s easier. I’ve tried to just write or just act or just direct. When you write your own scripts, you can see in front of you what you want. You can see the locations. I’m writing a script right now, and it’s almost like I’m speaking to myself while doing it. It’s so clear in my head, so it’s probably easier to go in and do it yourself than try to explain to someone what I want. I did another show recently that I directed for someone else. Even though I have a vision, she also has a vision. They’re not separate, but they’re different. So it sounds like it’s a lot to juggle. And time-wise, it is a lot. But when it comes to what you want and what you need, it’s sometimes easier.

TV DRAMA: You’re in a long-term relationship and you’re famous, writing a show about fame and love. How much of yourself could you pour into this character without revealing too much about your own life?
BORNEBUSCH: I think I always dig where I stand. It’s hard not to put some parts of yourself into a story. When it comes to the dialogue, I can write a fun scene and then realize afterward, oh, I’ve actually said that to my husband! But I’m not writing about my life at all. [With the reunion tour], we were trying to find a contrast to who they are now [versus who they were]. The show must go on. If you’re acting in a play, the audience doesn’t care if you had a divorce yesterday. You still have to give them what they paid for. That contrast is beautiful when you go through so much behind the scenes and then you’re another person [on stage]. It’s not at all about my life. But always, when I write, some parts sneak in there.

TV DRAMA: Being a writer, actress and director, how do you approach choosing projects now?
BORNEBUSCH: I don’t know! What’s the next thing? Sometimes I think, if I have time, an idea will just drop into my lap, and I’ll go, This is what I want to write about. For so many years, I’ve had so many projects going on because you never know. You’re developing a few and reading scripts for others and you say yes to everything because you don’t know if we’ll get a green light, or maybe this draft will not be anything in the end. I’m trying to not be too married to every project. In starting different projects, you can realize, that’s not for me. But it is hard. I also have help from agents, my husband and my producer here at Warner Bros. They are trying to guide me. But it’s hard for them as well. They say, You need to do what you want to do.

TV DRAMA: You made Love Me and Orca with Viaplay as well. Tell us about your relationship with the platform.
BORNEBUSCH: It all started with Love Me. I worked on that show for ten years. I pitched it to everyone and everyone said no. I rewrote it for so many years, and I listened to all the notes from all the streamers and the production companies. And then we landed at Viaplay. They said, We love it, let’s do it. I said, OK, what are your notes? And they said, We want you to have the creative freedom, you can do whatever you want. I said, What? I had written things before and directed before, but this was my first show where I wrote all the episodes. It’s my baby. I wasn’t meant to direct and act in it. But they said, You should do it all. Why don’t you? I said, Maybe I should! And then I did. While we were shooting the first season, they came to me and said, We want two more seasons. I said, Wow, I hadn’t thought of that. I thought I had said everything in the first season; I’m not sure I can come up with more seasons. And then I went away for Christmas, and on the plane, I started to think about the second season, and it just came out. It was all there. So I went back and said, of course, We’re going to do a second season. While we were doing that season, I pitched Harmonica to Johan [Hedman, head of drama at Warner Bros. International Television Production Sverige]. He said, Let’s do it. So we started to develop it, and it wasn’t even a question of where we should go because Viaplay was there with open arms. We went to them, and they said, Let’s do it. We shot for a week, and then Covid came, and it was a disaster and we had to stop. In the taxi, I came up with a new idea. I called Johan again and said, This sounds crazy, and I know we can’t shoot right now, but I have an idea we could do even though it is Covid. I said, I’m going to write this feature film in three weeks and we’ll shoot it in 11 days. Can you give me the green light? And the next day, he called Viaplay and said this is a new idea, and they said yes.

TV DRAMA: Do you not like having any downtime? Do you just enjoy being busy all the time?
BORNEBUSCH: [Laughs] I kind of love it. Now that I’ve been working back to back and had two or three projects at the same time for almost four years now, I feel a bit tired! I’ve been directing a show in the U.K. for six months, and Harmonica is out now, so, what now? I’m not in post, I’m not in prep, I’m not in production; this is so unusual. It’s been a week of, I don’t know what to do with my time. Should I go to the gym? It was really weird. But now I’m back.

TV DRAMA: Where did all the music in Harmonica come from?
BORNEBUSCH: We wrote all the music ourselves. It’s actually a fun story. We decided to write it together and play the leads, and I was directing as well. And Jonas said, If we’re writing a show about music, shouldn’t we also write all the music? I said, Can you write music? I’m not a composer at all. He said, I haven’t tried, but we should, shouldn’t we? Otherwise, you have to buy a lot of music, and it’s going to be complicated. I said, OK, sure. I thought he was crazy! I went to his office and he opened the closet and it was like a Donald Duck sequence; instruments just fell out. He picked one up, and then I realized he could play all of them. We wrote all the music, and he composed all the music, even the background music; he did it all. It was a lot of fun. We wrote the music at the same time we wrote the scripts. I said, We need their essential [hit]; can you write a really cheesy song, one they wrote when they were 19 and would never stand for today? He texted me and said, Give me a sentence that makes you want to vomit. I said, what about, “Take your fur off and turn off the light. We’re dancing the devil’s dance tonight.” He was like, That’s great, I’m putting it in there. It was so much fun!

TV DRAMA: Is it more liberating writing a one-off piece like Harmonica versus a series that has the potential to return?
BORNEBUSCH: It depends on the project. When they asked for two more with Love Me, they said it’s such an open ending. And I was like, Is it? I thought it was closed! And then when I thought about it, I knew they were right. It’s actually a three-season series. With Harmonica it was, this is a story; it should end here. There’s no way we do a second season. And with Orca, the feature film I did, when I came up with the idea, I knew this was a feature film. Writing a miniseries is more contained, so when you’re in the edit, you can watch all the episodes; it’s all there. With ten episodes or eight episodes, it will always be episode per episode, and you’re trying to see the whole series in front of you, but it’s hard. But also, it’s nice to write a longer series because then you can actually stay in the moments and be with the characters and let them develop and take different turns. Both are fun.