Sara Johnsen is one of Norway’s most distinguished writers/directors, celebrated as well as a novelist (White Man, He Knows Something She Can Try). She had her international breakthrough with her feature debut Kissed by Winter (2005), nominated for the Nordic Council Film Prize and Norway’s candidate at the Academy Awards.

She wrote and directed three other films: Upperdog, All that Matters is Past and Framing Mum and worked as additional writer on the acclaimed TV series Occupied.

The six part series 22 July (22 Juli) produced by NRK Drama, is Johnsen’s first full TV drama as head-writer, co-created with director Pål Sletaune (Junk Mail). Featuring fictional characters, but based on meticulous research, the series examines the aftermath of July 22, 2011 terror attacks in Oslo and the island of Utøya, from the perspective of the ordinary people who were affected by the tragedy - health workers, police officers, teachers, journalists. 

The action starts in the summer of 2011 and ends with the case against the perpetrator a year later. Co-creators Johnsen, Sletaune and the team associated to 22 July paid great care and attention to the victims and their families, and chose an ensemble cast of mostly unknown actors, besides Alexandra Gjerpen (Young & Promising, Norsemen).

Launched on January 5, 2020 on NRK, the first two episodes were followed by nearly 500,000 viewers on linear TV, plus 100,000 on NRK TV. DRG handles world distribution.

Too read more about all the 2020 Nordisk Film & TV Fond Prize nominees: CLICK HERE.

Firstly, what does it mean for you to be nominated for the Nordisk Film & TV Fond Prize?
Sara Johnsen: It’s really an honour. Pål [Sletaune] and I have been working on this project for so long. Now it feels like we have created something of prime value.

When did you first realise that fiction writing was an essential part of your life?
SJ: I remember wanting to be a writer from when I was maybe 15, but not thinking it would ever be possible. Reading books meant a lot to me and still does. I wanted to marry a writer when I grew up, and for him to be like Garp in John Ivring’s book The World According to Garp.

Much later, I had an aunt who read like fifteen short stories I had written and she picked out one of them and said: "There you are, this language is good!” it was a story inspired by my own life and the "voice" and language were very close to someone inside of me.

From that moment I felt ecstatic about the freedom of writing and my first book was published a year later.

What type of stories do you want to tell?
SJ: All kind of stories. I am mostly interested in finding the voice of a story, but I also want to be a political writer, by telling stories that reflect issues in society.

When did NRK first approach you and Pål with the project? Did they come up with the idea of focusing not on the perpetrator nor the victims but on the people who were affected by the tragic attack?
SJ: Pål and I started working on the project already in 2013, and in 2014, we went to NRK with our idea which was to focus on the people who worked under the terror attack - doctors, journalist, policemen and teachers. We wanted to say something about how these people reacted and what kind of systems they worked in. For us, this seemed like the most interesting way to tell the story of the terror attack of July 22, 2011.

What memories do you personally have of that day? Why did you feel it necessary to re-tell the tragedy through fiction?
SJ: I was in Oslo working and heard the huge bang. I first thought it was thunder, then a colleague said that according to the news, it was an explosion in the government building. Then we went home, afraid it was an Al Qaeda attack. During that evening and night, the terrible news came about all the victims, and it was a shock to learn that the terrorist was Norwegian. From that day I’ve read, discussed, and thought a lot about July 22. I think it is a good thing to remember what happened and why, and I hope the TV series will be a part of that legacy.

How did you tackle the challenge of pairing ethical and dramaturgical considerations while writing the screenplay? What did you absolutely not want to tell or show?
SJ: It was a great challenge and difficult to balance reality and drama. All the main characters are based on the experiences of many people who worked on 22 July.

From what we heard and learned, we created fictional characters. In real life more people are involved in all types of things, but in a drama it’s difficult to follow the story if one has too many different characters doing different things. So this was one ethical consideration we had to solve. Another is that in real life, things happen slowly or really fast, whereas in fiction, one needs a bit of building up.

We really did not want to follow the terrorist, also because in a drama, even though a character might be evil - his strong sense of purpose still makes him a kind of a hero or heroine. During the year that followed, the real terrorist also got a lot of attention and there was no need to retell his story.

The victims were real, and for us it felt strange not only to pick one particular character’s story, but also to make fictional characters out of some of the real victims.

Why did you not share the directing duties with Pål Sletaune, although you’ve written and directed all your movies?
SJ: We did share the directing of some scenes, notably in episode five. We had to make a lot of casting and rewrites because of budget constraints during the shoot. So we sat every night after shooting and discussed scenes for the day to come. Pål and I really made this together both from the idea of writing, casting, sound and planning, and I also spent one and a half years in the editing room! We had a writers’ room for a while, researchers and the established script supervisor Gjyljeta Berisha. It felt like a fantastic team effort. But I do enjoy writing more than being on the set; I hate the time pressure and the endless discussions about money that a director has to face. For me, writing and editing is the best parts.

What did you find most rewarding about show-running 22 July, your first TV show?
SJ: What I’m experiencing right now are the reactions and results after the premiere. I have received so many SMS from people who liked the first two episodes, and the series got good reviews. I also really like the format of a long story-telling, like a long novel, and I liked working in NRK - (and disliked it sometimes), but we had a really great freedom and trust from the head of drama and our producer Elisabeth Tangen. It also so nice that it’s available on a platform where its easy for people to watch it.

What's next for you?
SJ: I have started to work slowly again, thinking and writing. But I don’t know what will be next.