A new Scandinavian thriller franchise kicks off with The Keeper Of Lost Causes. Wendy Mitchell talks to the director, Mikkel Norgaard, about bringing a cinematic feel and dark humour to the project to move away from the region’s TV hits

The Scandi crime wave is booming on TVs across the world, but for director Mikkel Norgaard it holds special theatrical appeal. Norgaard wanted to bring an epic, big-screen feel to his new film The Keeper Of Lost Causes, to differentiate it from TV hits The Killing, Wallander or The Bridge.

“In a thriller you really have the opportunity to use the cinematic force - that’s one reason I wanted to do this film,” the Copenhagen-based director tells Screen.

“I knew if we were going to do this, it had to be cinematic. The television series [of Scandinavian crime stories] are very good and have only been getting better over the past five years. Do people want to go to the cinema to basically see something similar to what’s on telly? I said to the team, we have to raise the bar, we have to do the best we can and hopefully a little better.”

Their plans to make the film more cinematic included using a warm, organic colour palette and avoiding handheld camera for a more classic feel.

The story is based on the first Department Q novel by bestselling Danish author Jussi Adler-Olsen. It stars Nikolaj Lie Kaas and Fares Fares as two unlikely police partners assigned to a cold case; they then have to hunt down a psychopath.

The film marks a new kind of slightly more commercial-leaning production from Zentropa, which plans to turn it into a franchise, spearheaded by producer Louise Vesth. Here in Cannes, TrustNordisk is handling sales and will screen for buyers-only as a work in progress.

Norgaard is best known in Denmark for directing local hit comedy feature Klown. “That became quite a success here, so after that I found myself in a situation where I wanted to make either a very small film or try to go even bigger, or try to challenge myself in a new way, taking on a new genre,” he says of his move into a thriller.

He knew producer Vesth and screenwriter Nikolaj Arcel (A Royal Affair) from the National Film School of Denmark. They had wanted to work with each other for years, but this is the first feature all three have worked on together.

A fine balance

Adapting a beloved novel was the first challenge. Norgaard says: “Nikolaj and I did the first adaptation together and we tried to hold onto the essence of the story and the atmosphere and characters but it seems impossible [to bring a whole book to screen].

“There is the book and there is the film. The fans of the books will get a new experience but also if you don¹t know anything about this author or this universe, it’s still a good film. That balance is what we tried to work with.”

Casting of his leads was crucial. Fares, the Beirut-born, Swedish star of films such as Jalla! Jalla!, plays the assistant, Assad.

“He was one of my first ideas for the whole cast,” the director recalls. “I just love his face, and he has this warmth inside him.”

Even the grumpy Carl Morck, played by Lie Kaas, has his moments of humour, the director suggests.

“Carl is a classic thriller kind of character, at least in Scandinavia; he’s divorced, he lives alone. But there’s a dry, character-based humour that I liked. I wanted to hang on to that. So I worked a lot with Nikolaj [Lie Kaas]. I still wanted it to have the humour there, but not ha-ha funny. It’s rough and it’s dark so I think it’s important to give the audience these small gasps of air.”

Actress Sonja Richter had some of the most challenging scenes as a woman alone in a room.

“I told [actress] Sonja [Richter] at the beginning, you have no-one to play with, there’s no interaction, it’s just you and a few things we put in there. It was a very special situation,” he notes.

“Sonja is a great actress and she is very, very committed.”

Norgaard clearly enjoyed his life of crime, because he has already signed on to direct the second film in the Department Q series, which Arcel is now adapting with Rasmus Heisterberg, for a likely autumn shoot.

That story is more layered, addressing the wrongs of a group of privileged boarding school students whose legacy of crime stretches into adulthood.

“It is much more complex. It’s nice because there’s something new to it, we can build on what we’ve done in the first one. There’s something in the new story that forces me to approach it in a slightly different way.”

He adds: “When you finish a film is usually when you understand the language of it, and then you’re done. And this time you can work with the same crew to take that knowledge and experience and push it to the next level.”