Text by Richard Orange
As a pitch it sounds like a bit of a joke. Let’s get that guy from The Sopranos and Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, and have him come to Lillehammer, Norway, as a gangster on a witness protection programme. He’ll have to deal with wolves, the Norwegian nanny state and a stint in a prison that looks more like a holiday camp.
“It was just a wild idea and a wild chance that sort of ended up a success,” says Anne Bjørnstad, one of the husband-and-wife writer team who conceived the culture-clash comedy Lilyhammer, which stars actor and guitarist Steven Van Zandt as Frank “The Fixer” Tagliano, the New York gangster who chooses to move to Lillehammer because he saw some of the 1994 Winter Olympics on TV and liked the look of “the clean air, fresh white snow, gorgeous broads”.
It’s very much a Norwegian show, and it’s been sort of a success indeed. Since launching in January 2012 on NRK to a record 998,000 Norwegian viewers, it’s been sold to 150 territories and made history as the first ever series commissioned by streaming site Netflix. With the likes of House of Cards and Orange is the New Black now established names, and Netflix pledging to spend US$3 billion (NOK18.4bn) on TV and film content this year, it’s a model that seems here to stay. As for Lilyhammer, people far beyond Norway have responded to the fact it’s genuinely funny, and manages that tricky balance of being charming and wryly satirical.
Bjørnstad and husband Eilif Skodvin didn’t exactly have the pedigree of The Sopranos’ Terence Winter or Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan. The couple started out in the late ’90s writing jokes for various TV and radio comedies before joining forces on Rikets Røst, a weekly satire programme that lampooned Norway’s nanny state for some six series; Bjørnstad has also co-written a number of plays.
When they arranged a meeting with Van Zandt in Bergen in 2008, they were nervous. “We had a five-week-old baby at the time, and we couldn’t find a babysitter. When we decided to take our baby to the meeting, the girl who’d set it up said, ‘Oh God, please don’t make me look bad, he’s a world famous rock star.’ He didn’t raise an eyebrow.”
Then there was the issue of pitching an American star an idea for a show that poked fun not just at small-town mentalities and nannyism, but very specific local issues such as the NAV social security system and local policing. As it happened, Van Zandt loved the idea. “Surprisingly, perhaps, he always wanted us to make it as Norwegian as possible, because he felt that’s what makes it universal,” says Bjørnstad. “If you make it very specific, then it’s universal somehow.”
While Frank’s Mafia values constantly clash with the wishy-washy liberalism depicted in the show, in real life Van Zandt is a Norway fan. He’s been coming since the 1980s, performing with Springsteen and picking up Norwegian bands for his own label, Wicked Cool. The Cocktail Slippers, an all-girl rock band he signed in 2007, feature in Lilyhammer’s second episode, “The Flamingo”.
“Norwegians are very complicated,” he told an NRK interviewer when he was in town to launch the second season last year. “There are a lot of contradictions and paradoxes in Norwegian culture that I find fascinating: it’s very community-based, it’s a very social democratic society, but you get to know Norwegians and they’re very, very individualistic.”
So far so knowing, but Van Zandt has had his own run-ins with the country, starting with his surprise that lead actors don’t get their own trailer in this corner of the world. Bjørnstad laughs at the memory of his first night filming, on a freezing night in January 2011. “We were doing the wolf hunt scene, and I think in that moment he regretted the whole thing. It was -20oC, and he was probably wearing woolly underwear for the first time in his life.”
Norwegian bureaucracy bit for real recently, during filming for the third season, when the show’s producers wanted to bring a live tiger into Norway for filming. After applying for permits to import the animal from a specialist company in the Czech Republic, their application leaked to the Norwegian tabloids, after which animal rights activists threatened to sabotage the filming. In the end, the producers gave up, deciding to make do with a digitally created animal.
But while Van Zandt has become a fixture of life in Lillehammer during filming, life hasn’t always imitated art. The actor has certainly been better for Lillehammer than his character in the show. Carl-Martin Rønningen, the events manager for Nikkers, Lillehammer’s top nightspot, welcomes the Lilyhammer effect. “We’ve had a lot of Americans who’ve come here because the cover of the American DVD is taken inside the restaurant. It’s Steven Van Zandt sitting under an elk head, so people come because they want to have that same photograph.” Apparently Van Zandt heads to Nikkers a couple of times a week during filming, and is a big fan of shuffleboard, a kind of tabletop curling game.
And while Lilyhammer has been good news for Lillehammer, it’s also been good news for the Norwegian talent that has grown with the show, from lonely welfare administrator Jan (Fridtjov Såheim) to kind local police chief Laila (Anne Krigsvol). Central among them is Torgeir Lien, Frank’s gormless Norwegian sidekick in his now-iconic “I love girls” cap, played by classically trained actor Trond Fausa Aurvåg.
Before Lilyhammer, Aurvåg was most famous for his theatre work in Oslo Nye Teater, and for taking the lead role in Den Brysomme Mannen, or The Bothersome Man, an existential drama about a man who finds himself in an outwardly perfect yet essentially soulless dystopia.
It won him an Amanda, Norway’s version of an Oscar. But the role was a far cry from Torgeir, the simple, cartoonish character he plays in Lilyhammer.
“I was worried in the beginning that I was overacting,” Aurvåg says of the role. “But then I understood it fits the character to be that dumb and stupid, to be a little bit of a caricature. I tend to see Torgeir as kind of a dog for Frank, because he just obeys, his mindset is too narrow, so he doesn’t think about the consequences, right or wrong.”
Still, he says there’s truth in many of Lilyhammer’s comedy set-ups. “The show is always trying to take the Norwegian spirit and culture, and try to see it with a foreigner’s eyes,” he says. “If you’ve seen the first episode of season one, he’s trying to bribe the social security guy. That system is quite big, and everyone in Norway is either happy with it, or very disappointed with it. We take that in Lilyhammer and we twist it a bit so we can laugh at it.”
Aurvåg had his own culture shock when they filmed in New York for the season two finale. “There were so many more people on set than we get here in Norway. They have a guy responsible for the food props on the table. That’s kind of different.”
In the third season, the action moves to Brazil, where Torgeir’s brother Roar finds an internet bride, with disastrous consequences. It’s fair to say the show has grown beyond anything Bjørnstad expected when she pitched the idea. “We always thought it was more an idea for a film or a novel,” she admits of the Lilyhammer concept. “But over the years there have been a number of HBO-type series that are the same kind of strong premise, main-character-driven shows.”
She compares the show with Dexter, the US series about a police investigator who moonlights as a serial killer. “I think what happens is that in the first season the main character has to drive the whole thing, but then in the second season, you have already established a couple of characters, and you have a universe with a lot of tension in it, and you can sort of spread it out a lot more.”
Dexter has run to eight seasons. Might Lilyhammer do the same? “We always think this is the last season, just because it’s kind of hard to make drama,” says Bjørnstad. “But if the opportunity presents itself again, who knows? It’s been a great ride and why not take another round.” A lot of people would be happy to see more of this very Norwegian success story.
Check out more Scandinavian film stars: Lars Mikkelsen & Peter Stormare
Lillehammer is just over two hours’ drive from Oslo; Norwegian flies to Oslo from nearly 110 destinations. Book flights, a hotel and a rental car at norwegian.com