Posted by: Ben Hopkins | 18/05/2011

Q&A: Jóhann Ævar Grímsson, co-writer of The Night Shift (Næturvaktin)

Jóhann Ævar Grímsson is one of the writers behind Næturvaktin / The Night Shift, its sequels Dagvaktin / The Day Shift and Fangavaktin / The Prison Shift, as well as the Bjarnfreðarson film.

The writing team is completed by Jón Gnarr (who plays Georg), Jörundur Ragnarsson (Daniel), Pétur Jóhann Sigfússon (Olafur) and the director Ragnar Bragason.

Grímsson talks about the creation of the show and his hope that BBC4 will show the remaining two Shift series.

How did the first idea of The Night Shift come about? Was it lead by the situation or the characters?

The Shift series have always been about characters first and foremost. In the beginning, way before we started making plot ideas, we spent months on the three main characters, developing detailed profiles and as intricate back stories as we could muster for each of them. Almost all of the situation parts of the storyline sprang from us wondering what would happen if we’d put them in this or that predicament. Their back stories were endless fodder for awkward situations.

There are several writers on the show. Did any of you specialize in part of the writing process (whether that’s with characters, story lines, structures or something else) or did you all contribute to the whole process?

Although most of the actual typing is done by me and Ragnar Bragason, the director, the series is done in tight collaboration as the three main actors, Jón Gnarr, Pétur Jóhann Sigfússon and Jörundur Ragnarsson, have authority over each of their respective characters and contribute to the writing.

Let me break it down: First there is the idea phase where everything is open and the entire group just spitballs as many ideas as we can. We spend a lot of time researching (elements for auxiliary characters, backstory, environments etc.) and try to expand our three main characters, while keeping true to their essence. The good ideas usually germinate some solid themes to base episodes around.

When we’ve collected enough of those, we go to phase two where I and Ragnar break the stories into episodes and write out a structured and detailed scene-by-scene treatment draft. This draft goes into review by the group as a whole where each episode is developed further and rewritten, based on read-throughs and comments. When we’re confident with a draft of the treatment (usually around draft 10) we go to phase three.

To retain some sense of spontaneity the actors improvise the dialogue for each scene. We record and transcribe these improv sessions and, along with the detailed treatment, use them as the raw ingredients for what will become the final draft of the script. Me and Ragnar adjust and assemble the scripts which go back into the group read-through.

There is usually a fair amount of rewriting and tweaking during this part, but at the end of it we get scripts where almost every detail has been thoroughly slaved over, picked apart and put together again.

In the first series, Georg is pretty much the star of the show but he’s almost completely unlikeable. Much of the humour therefore comes from situations in which he’s embarrassed or humiliated. How difficult was it to find enough variations on this to make for an entire series?

Truth be told Georg is such a goldmine of weird and misanthropic behaviour, that most of the time we had to find ways of scaling it back. Jón Gnarr is also very prolific in inventing awkward situations so that was never a real problem.

I’m guessing you couldn’t have predicted how successful this series would become. At the time of writing The Night Shift, did you have much in mind as to what would happen to the characters after the initial series?

We wrote with an all-in mentality. Every season was to be our last, so there was no real master plan for the characters as such. Of course we speculated on their ultimate fate during the writing of The Night Shift, but some of it came true and some of it didn’t, as there were a few surprise developments along the way.

One thing though that we did anticipate, or at least hoped we could do; we had already written a huge chunk of Georg’s back story during the writing of The Night Shift. We always knew we wanted to tell that story and that became the backbone of Bjarnfreðarson, the final chapter.

I thought that the main strength of The Day Shift and The Prison Shift was how much Olafur and particular Daniel evolved. How did you approach continuing their own individual stories?

The actors, became really pushy about getting more screen time… kidding! No it sort of happened naturally as Pétur Jóhann and Jörundur became increasingly confident in their roles. That opened more doors inside their characters, allowing them to evolve organically, which led to great character based stuff.

My favourite episode of all three series is in The Day Shift, when the restaurant’s food is accidentally spiked with hallucinogenics. Could you tell us a little about the background to that episode?

That whole soup thing actually happened to someone related to one of us. There was a dinner party where some “magic mushrooms” got accidentally mixed in with the edible ones causing some people at the dinner table to freak out a bit.

The episode itself grew around that nugget of a story. It’s basically a classical farce structure, only with our characters and they’re completely bereft of their senses. The rest sort of wrote itself.

And my favourite element of all three series is how the closing scenes are always very poignant and bittersweet. Was the final scene always the toughest and most important to get right?

As a group, we really enjoyed seeing these guys generate pathos, but it had to be earned. Our trick was to basically write a drama, but use comedy characters. In hindsight The Shifts are the story of Georg, a man having a pretty serious breakdown. Only it’s told through the prism of comedy. With that in mind it only felt natural to drop the mask of comedy during the final scenes of each season and let the drama of it all wash over us.

Most comedy shows that are made into films lose track of what made them special in the first place. Was this an important consideration for you? And did you do anything in particular to retain the spirit of the TV show?

We actually never thought of it as being anything other than the de facto finale of the series. We just did it wide screen and had more time to shoot it.

I’ve followed Jón Gnarr’s activities since the end of the series, but what has the rest of the team been working on?

We just finished writing World’s End (Heimsendir), an epic 9 part mini-series about a revolution in a mental asylum. We’re shooting it in the summer and It’ll be shown this fall on Channel 2 in Iceland. I think it’ll be a corker.

Will the BBC be showing The Day Shift and The Prison Shift?

I certainly hope the BBC will finish showing the complete series, as it is in essence one massive narrative in three parts. We tried our best to progress our characters and our story to reach an emotional conclusion with Bjarnfreðarson, which we consider the final episode (and the first in a circular narrative kind of a way). If there are any fans reading this, I encourage you to send your letters to Auntie Beeb and make it happen.

Are there any plans for a UK DVD release?

I’ve been egging the money dudes on about that. If they get a whiff of profit, they just might…

Until then I think you can buy it off Nammi.is at a reasonable price (I think), but you have to search for it with the original titles (Næturvaktin, Dagvaktin, Fangavaktin and Bjarnfreðarson).

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Responses

  1. [...] also mentions their new series, World’s End, which will go into shooting this summer. Click here for the piece. Also on Iceland On Screen; a summary of the reaction to The Night Shift which has [...]


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