At a Series Mania panel, Lars von Trier’s partner and producer unveiled crunchy details about how the series saved Zentropa from bankruptcy and about the restoration process.
“We were broke!" said Zentropa co-founder Peter Aalbæk Jensen, in his typically defiant style, while explaining how the cult series The Kingdom (Riget) first came to life in the 1990s.
Aalbæk Jensen, alongside producer Louise Vesth and TrustNordisk CEO Susan Wendt were invited last week to discuss the making of von Trier’s ground-breaking hospital drama at the Series Mania Forum panel ‘Rebooting Iconic Series: The Kingdom’.
Rewind. Three decades ago. Denmark’s legendary writer/director Lars von Trier and his production partner Aalbæk Jensen had just launched Zentropa a few years earlier - in 1992- but according to the producer, the company was in the red after a few daring artistic experiments. “We had no money left and agreed to persuade a Danish ‘sleeping’ TV company - DR to invest in a TV series,” recalls Aalbæk Jensen, before explaining how the Danish broadcaster was convinced to board the series.
While standing on the fifth floor of their company with DR execs, the Zentropa founding duo looked away at the horizon where they could see Copenhagen’s city hospital ‘Rigshopitalet’ - the inspiration for the title name Riget (meaning ‘The Kingdom’). “We told DR we wanted to do a series about a hospital, but they weren’t interested. Then we saw clouds and a strange light covering the hospital. The day before, the French series Belphegor -or Phantom of the Louvre had premiered on TV. Lars looked at the hospital and said [to the DR’s execs]- 'oh did we forget to say it is about a ghost story, set in the hospital?' DR immediately gave us a budget and money -that was the easy part. We then promised to deliver it a year after.”
Launched on the Danish pubcaster in 1994, the eerie eight-part series about good and evil, set in a hospital's neurosurgical ward, went on to make von Trier a household name in Denmark, while a theatrical version contributed to spreading his international fame. A second season of four episodes written again by von Trier and Niels Vørsel, premiered on DR in 1997.
The third and final instalment The Kingdom Exodus commissioned by Viaplay and DR, is due to launch later this year.
Asked by moderator Camilla Larsson how von Trier agreed to return to The Kingdom, 25 years later, Vesth said the director had written three seasons and knew at the time how to close the series, but the passing away of the main actors [Ernst-Hugo Järegård as the infamous Swedish doctor Stig Helmer and Kirsten Rolffes as Sigrid Drusse] and von Trier’s urge to innovate, temporarily made him ditch the finale. He eventually changed his mind, after witnessing at a concert-tribute to his works, Danish fans’ rave response to The Kingdom’s music theme.
“Lars then changed the story and introduced new characters. Fortunately, Dr Helmer had seven children and one of them becomes doctor as well. He will arrive at The Kingdom to find out what drew his father insane,” explains the producer.
Playing chief physician and Dr Helmer junior in The Kingdom Exodus is Swedish star actor Michael Persbrandt who joins members of the original cast, including Søren Pilmark, Ghita Nørby and Peter Mygind. Other cast members comprise Lars Mikkelsen, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Bodil Jørgensen, Nicolas Bro, Tuva Novotny, David Dencik, and Aleksander Skarsgård.
Quizzed about the striking grainy and orangey sepia visual style of The Kingdom, Aalbæk Jensen said Zentropa “got a fixed budget [from DR] but a lot of money for lighting”. “We took the budget for equipment and moved it from equipment to company profit. That was fun! he said with the grin of a naughty boy. By filming in an industrial estate, with neon lights, a handheld camera, in a non-chronological order (“we didn’t give a sh.t about continuity”), which meant saving on a script girl, and by giving the actors free space to act in character, without pauses between takes, Aalbæk Jensen said it all “made the series look quite modern, and we saved a hell of a lot of money!”
Expanding on von Trier’s unique visual style, Vesth said “Lars was ahead of his time”. As the series was shot in full frame in 16mm - before being transferred to video and blown up to 35mm for release - Zentropa was able to restore the raw images frame by frame, after a full year of research to gather the material. “We have now remastered the first two seasons and you’ll be able to rediscover scenes,” she said, extremely pleased with the final result.
Vesth said although DR had financed the first two seasons, she had to find another partner on top of the Danish pubcaster, to fully-finance the third season. “Luckily Viaplay were interested and came on board,” she said. Nordisk Film & TV Fond is among the various Nordic co-financiers.
TrustNordisk’s CEO Susan Wendt said the three seasons of 13 episodes in total are being sold as a package. “We got the rights back of the old series, and we are selling it to a combination of regular distributors of Lars von Trier films and new streamers,” explained the seasoned sales agent, who is looking for “the best solutions on a country by country basis.”
Territories that have pre-bought The Kingdom package so far include Germany/Austria (Koch Films), Japan (Synca Creations) and South Korea (AtNine).
The exclusive launch on Viaplay is slated for later this year, with the premiere on DR due to roll out later on.
Asked if the series would be ready for Cannes, Vesth said delivery would most likely be at a later date, closer to the Venice Film Festival 2022.