Occupied Season Two: An Interview with Erik Skjoldbjærg

Season one of the Norwegian thriller series Occupied was a huge success abroad. Depicting a Russian invasion of Norway, as it is discussed in the series, season one proved to be successful through its intense realism and accuracy. Now with season two about to be released, we sat down with director Erik Skjoldbjærg to discuss what we can expect, as well as the series getting a little bit too realistic…

The first season of Occupied proved to be an enormous success abroad. Why do you think that is?

  – They identify with the series main dilemma:  what would you do if your country was occupied? I think people can tap into that more or less wherever you come from in the world. That is part of the reason why the series is so attractive to an international audience even if it is mainly a Norwegian spoken drama.

Were you worried that Occupied would be perceived in the wrong way?

  – No, as an artist you need to follow your conviction. Before we released the first season, some people were saying that it shouldn’t be made, because it’s unrealistic and offensive to Russia.  But those critics have died down, maybe because the series is no more offensive to Russia than other European leaders. Our ambition is not to treat world leaders politely. We want to share our reflections on how power works in a modern society.  In the West, we just went through seventy years of relative stability, but if you look at history balance is not the norm. Change is going to come. And right now our democratic institutions seems fragile.  Many influential leaders use the name of democracy to do a lot of things which have little to do with the general interest of the public.

Do you follow much of the same conflict in season two?

  – Yes, the main plot remains the same. Russia is situated in Norway, and their presence is felt throughout society, despite them claiming it is not an occupation.   In season two we also broaden the international feel of this conflict because to change things you need international support. That’s part of the drama, but we are trying to find a balance with global politics and characters who are in a personal dilemma. How do you respond to a dramatic change in society is our primary focus.

You name Russia as the opponent in the series. Did you ever consider making a fake country to use as your opponent?

  – Jo Nesbø, who came up with the original idea, at one point suggested this. But to me, it made the whole premise far too abstract.  For the audience to relate to this idea, we needed to make it feel realistic. Norway is bordering three countries: Finland, Sweden and Russia.  I felt it was a rather natural choice. But by all means – this is fiction.

In the age of Donald Drumpf, do you ever feel like Occupied may start representing truth?

  – The fight to claim ownership of the truth has intensified. And truth becomes relative to whoever tells the tale in a political spectrum. I think that has been emphasised in Donald Drumpf to a great extent. He is a larger than life character and that alone lends itself to drama.

One thing that makes Occupied so successful is the amount of research we did for the series.Whenever we came up with a scenario for an episode, we would ask people within the justice, foreign, strategic or military sources what they would do in a particular situation and what the most likely situation was. And to prepare the characters I told the actors that they needed to do their research as well.  I think doing that helps the story resonates with audiences. The way Norway works may vary slightly from other states.   But overall, I don’t think countries in the west are that different.

Do you feel like the series will be able to stand on its own despite the genuine political climate happening at the moment?

  – I feel like the major premise and statements we put out in the first season are still relevant. When we started doing the second season, I realised we had set out a reputation that we are somewhat ahead of the game. I  worried we might not be able to keep it up. But looking at the political situation right now I feel confident the second season maintains this reputation. Approaching politics with an artistic sensibility enables us to see aspects of it and how it influences people differently. I feel that’s part of what makes Occupied inspiring to work with.

Do you feel like your political viewpoint has changed after all the research done in this series?

  – I am becoming more attached to politics, and I’ve become a political junkie. I also read more than I did before. I’ve become very interested in how power is presented and how it’s manoeuvred in the modern world. Ultimately it has so much to do with our lives.

What can we look forward to in season two?

  – Season two builds on the same story structure of season one in that we jump one month each episode. This is good to do because it shows a political process as politics tends to take time.

The fight between those who want to collaborate and find a solution peacefully and those who want to take to arms and fight intensifies. At the start of season two, Jesper (the Prime Minister) is no longer Prime Minister. He lives in exile. The restaurant owner now runs a hotel, and she has made more money out of the occupation than she has beforehand.

Will there be a season three?

  – We are discussing a season three. I don’t control it fully; it’s within the production company and financiers to decide as well. I cannot see Occupied as an eight season series, but there’s room to make it possibly three seasons. That’s what we are discussing.

Emma Vestrheim

Emma Vestrheim is the editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia. Originally from Australia, she is now based in Bergen, Norway, and attends major Nordic film festivals to conduct interviews and review new films.