Piv Bernth

Piv Bernth, who set up Apple Tree Productions in 2017 with DR colleague Lars Hermann, talks to TV Drama about the indie label’s first show, Equinox, the forthcoming series Blackwater and how COVID-19 has affected production.

As an executive at the Danish public broadcaster, DR, Piv Bernth oversaw TV series that drew international attention to Nordic noir—the unique storytelling, subject matter, scenery and light that characterizes quality Scandinavian drama. She was an executive producer on Forbrydelsen, not only a hit in Denmark and internationally, but also adapted as The Killing in the U.S., and Bron/Broen(The Bridge), a Danish-Swedish co-production that served as a model for several others. In 2017, Bernth set up the indie label Apple Tree Productions with DR colleague Lars Hermann. Its first show, Equinox, is based on a popular podcast and was able to complete production despite the coronavirus outbreak. Blackwater, an adaptation of a bestselling novel, has had its shooting schedule postponed to 2021.

***Image***TV DRAMA: How did Blackwater come about?
BERNTH: Pernilla August, who will direct all six episodes, and Anna Croneman, the head of drama at SVT, contacted me and asked if I was interested in developing Blackwater with Pernilla and Maren Louise Käehne, who is the writer of the show. They asked me if it was something for Apple Tree and, of course, it was. It’s an iconic novel in Scandinavia by Kerstin Ekman. It’s been translated in 25 languages or so. We started developing it, and the collaboration between Maren Louise, Pernilla, SVT and me, has been great.

TV DRAMA: Blackwater is a co-production. How did the partners come together?
BERNTH: SVT is the main partner; they commissioned it and will broadcast the premiere. Through ITV, who is a partner in Apple Tree, we got connected to ARD in Germany. It’s been a fantastic ride because we’ve worked with people who love the book and the scripts. We changed a lot, and Kerstin Ekman has been at our side the whole time and has accepted all the changes we’ve made. We’ve even changed the perpetrator! There is a reason to watch the show because people who read the book may think they know who did it. No, you don’t!

TV DRAMA: Since so many people have read the book, how do you introduce new elements without disappointing them?
BERNTH: When you see a feature film or TV series based on a book you love, you are a tough audience because you have your own images in your head. It’s going to be the same with Blackwater. We open the series in the same way the book opens, so you will immediately recognize something you know. We had some ideas for another beginning, but then we realized if we start more or less the same way the book does, it helps people befriend it right away. Then again, the book is split up into three parts and two timelines, 1992 and 1970. In the book, they are separate: the present time, which is the ’90s, and the past. We cut it in a different way, the two levels of time follow each other. It’s quite nice; I hope it works. It works in the scripts, but until you get into the editing room, you never know.

TV DRAMA: You were supposed to start production on Blackwater, but it was delayed because of COVID-19?
BERNTH: We are going to shoot in the very north of Sweden because the story takes place during Midsummer night. We need to be in the countryside where there is daylight for 24 hours during the summer. It’s magical. It’s a bit weird because you can never know what time it is. Because of COVID, we couldn’t get up there—no infrastructure, no flights going there, and it’s a 10-hour drive from Stockholm and 18 hours from Skåne County. Plus, at the time, there were regulations in Sweden that you couldn’t move more than two hours away from your home. It was complicated. First, we thought of moving the shoot to this fall. But then all productions in Sweden were moving towards the fall, and we couldn’t get any crews or casts. So we decided together with SVT that we would postpone everything for one year. We were supposed to start May 25 this year, and now we’re starting May 25, 2021. And if there is a second wave of coronavirus this fall, we would have had to postpone anyway. We are trying to save the quality of the show, not trying to get bits and pieces and stop and then ask what we can change. We have six wonderful scripts, and there is no reason for doing it with less quality.

TV DRAMA: You also had Equinox in production.
BERNTH: We had two weeks of shooting left in Copenhagen when we were shut down. The producer, writer and director had to go through the remaining scenes, re-write and take out some actors and bring in others who were already there. It took three weeks to do a two-week shoot because of these regulations.

TV DRAMA: Equinox is based on a popular podcast.
BERNTH: It is. Tea Lindeburg, who did the podcast, is the head writer on the show. She re-invented the podcast as a TV series, and it’s really well done. She’s developing the second season now. Fingers crossed the first season goes well. We might have another season!

TV DRAMA: I know that in Sweden, production didn’t completely stop; it just slowed down. How was the situation in Denmark?
BERNTH: It totally stopped. Everything was shut down: theaters, cinemas, productions. Our prime minister went on television on a Wednesday night. On Thursday and Friday, work slowed down, and over the weekend, everything stopped. People who were shooting abroad came back home. Some were in Spain, some in the Czech Republic. The economic support from the government will hopefully be helpful, but you still lose money. We have been quite lucky, we’ve made it well, but some have suffered.

TV DRAMA: How have you seen Scandinavian drama evolve since the days of The Killing and The Bridge? Is there a desire now, especially with COVID, for shows that aren’t as dark?
BERNTH: I think there is absolutely demand for a lighter touch now because of this. Everyone is asking, can we get a nice comedy? Scandinavian drama has evolved a lot in all genres. And I said years ago that we should leave Nordic Noir and try to find a new path. Because the worst thing that can happen to Scandinavia is that we become a kind of museum for Nordic Noir, which would be boring. We have to move on to something new. There are a lot of good shows now in all genres from Norway, Sweden and Finland. Iceland has done shows, as well. But the competition is crazy. There is so much out there. It’s not enough to be from the Nordic countries to say Nordic Noir. Ten or 15 years ago, you could say Nordic Noir and people would say, Wow! But it’s not like that anymore. There is so much good programming and a lot of not-so-good programming! The streamers have done a big job to help; people are learning a lot. The environment is very competitive but very inspiring, as well.

TV DRAMA: Between linear channels and streaming services, do you have more outlets to work with who need product?
BERNTH: It’s one of the things that I enjoy. When I worked for DR, we only had one customer and that was DR. If they said, no, we don’t like this, you couldn’t go anywhere else to sell it because DR could not sell a project to someone else. The wonderful thing about being an independent producer is that you can choose from the whole world. We can choose co-production partners. If we think a company is good at doing something, we can try to get in touch with them and ask if they are interested in working with us. It’s quite nice—interesting and encouraging.