BIG budget TV drama Fortitude promises murder and intrigue inside the Arctic Circle, says its Scottish writer Simon Donald. By Jackie McGlone
It was only at the first read-through for the Sky TV series he has created, written and executive produced that Simon Donald realised the magnitude of the production they were about to embark upon.
Made at a cost of £25 million, Fortitude – Edinburgh-based Donald’s much-anticipated, 12-part murder mystery, set on an island off the Arctic coast of Norway – is the most expensive TV series ever produced, reportedly costing more than the annual budget of the Sky Arts channel. “I wasn’t thinking about any of that at the first reading,” says the 55-year-old actor-turned-playwright-and-screenwriter. “You can’t get hung up on facts and figures, however phenomenal. I can’t think about those pressures.”
Nonetheless, he sat in that rehearsal room looking around at the assembled company in amazement. The starry cast for Fortitude has the “Queen of Nordic Noir” Sofie Gråbøl in her first TV role since the cult thriller The Killing, following her treatment for breast cancer. Also there were Hollywood actor Stanley Tucci, former Doctor Who Christopher Eccleston, Call the Midwife’s Jessica Raine, Richard Dormer, from Games of Thrones, and 20 other actors, including Sir Michael Gambon.
“Michael Gambon for f***’s sake! Michael Gambon! An actor I have admired since I was a student – the star of The Singing Detective, one of the burning highlights of British television. I couldn’t wait for him to start speaking at the read-through, just to hear that voice,” says Donald.
He’s just flown to London from Los Angeles, where he attended three press launches involving Q&A sessions – “nerve-wracking” – with journalists from 150 publications. His Arctic chiller-thriller will be launched in the US next Thursday, at the same time as it is first screened here and across Europe.
All very impressive, but Wishaw-born-and-raised Donald is still reeling from the fact that “the great Gambon” is part of an all-star ensemble lured, on the strength of his script, to film in the icy wastes of a former mining town, Reydarfjördur, on Iceland’s east coast. The setting is modelled on Norway’s unforgiving Svalbard Islands, the remote preserve of mining companies and scientific researchers, which Donald and the series producers discovered only after a global search for the snowscape of his imagination.
“I couldn’t believe it when I went there; it was exactly the place I had pictured in my head because I needed permafrost – a lot of it – but a real place not a Brigadoon. I wanted a beautiful place where something bad could be bubbling under the horizon,” he explains.
In the small fictional town of Fortitude, residents are outnumbered three to one by polar bears, hence a legal requirement to carry a gun at all times. In terms of crime, however, the town is one of the safest places on Earth – that is, until a terrible murder destroys the peace of the community, leading to a blizzard of corruption, infidelity, secrets and suspicion. Not to mention disturbing discoveries in the wake of the opening “bloodbath,” leading to the series being labelled “Twin Peaks Meets The Killing, with elements of Fargo.”
That description probably owes more to the casting of Gråbøl, who has swapped Faroese jumpers for elegant furs, than to Donald’s plotting. Comparisons have also been made with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein because there are horrific revelations when all that frost melts. Donald, however, poo-poos such notions. “Yes, something emerges from the ice – but it’s not Frankenstein’s monster. I don’t do supernatural; I don’t believe in it. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like to creep people out. I do believe that Fortitude is its own thing and not another Fargo, say.”
Gråbøl is the mayor of Fortitude, who has ambitious plans to transform the former mining town into a high-end tourist resort, with a hotel carved into a glacier, while Gambon plays an alcoholic wildlife photographer, dying from liver cancer. Both actors have said they were drawn to the project because of the quality of the writing, with Gråbøl revealing that she admires Donald’s “expressive way of telling a story.” Gambon enthused to a Sunday magazine: “It’s simply not like anything else. It’s well made, there’s good writing. It’s like a 12-part movie.”
Oddly enough, Donald’s original idea for the unsettling story – which has so many fiendishly clever twists and turns that even the cast remain in the dark about the final episode after being allowed to read only their own scenes – was for an indie movie.
He related his story premise, which is inspired by science, the appliance of which in creative terms has long interested him, to a producer with whom he’s worked previously. (He’s the only playwright I’ve met who can get wildly excited about fractals and gluons.) His friend was blown away by the idea and told him that it was a major TV series. Donald has form on that front anyway, after writing the BBC’s The Deep and the multiple award-winning Channel 4 revenge drama, Low Winter Sun, with Mark Strong. He’s also scripted Murphy’s Law and wrote the 2000 film, Beautiful Creatures, starring Rachel Weisz and Susan Lynch.
His funny, dark 1992 Traverse play, The Life of Stuff, was garlanded with awards and Olivier nominated, later becoming a film with Ewen Bremner. Additionally, Donald has written for Kenneth Branagh’s Wallander. Perhaps that connection has also led to speculation that he’s into Scandi Noir. “In Fortitude there’s bright, exposing sunlight. It could not be further from wet, dark, windswept Scandi Noir, which I think owes a colossal debt to Taggart, a big influence on me when I was a teenager, along with Danger Man and The Avengers. I think they’re closer to my subconscious inspiration as a writer than all the stuff I’ve consumed as an adult, although I can’t watch TV when I’m writing so I’ve never seen Broadchurch or The Fall, for instance.”
The eldest of three children of a science teacher father and a sales rep mother, Donald read literature and languages at Aberdeen University and has been married to photographer Carol Gordon since 1988. He sees himself as a Scottish writer. “Our home’s in Edinburgh and we’ll always live there. The idea is if you’re successful, you move to London. We’ll never do that, although I get fed up of commuting and living in hotel rooms.
“I wasn’t on location with the cast in Iceland, where we shot all the exteriors – the interiors were mostly filmed at studios close to Heathrow but I was always holed up in a wee office working on script edits.”
Now, he’s writing the second series, although there will be no cliff-hanging ending – he promises resolution. “What interests me now is what Breaking Bad does so well – it follows up on consequences, things that aren’t foregrounded grow in significance and become very important.
“And, no, I’m never short of ideas.”
• Fortitude begins on Sky Atlantic on Thursday, 9pm.