TBI deputy editor Mark Layton catches up with Adi Hasak, the showrunner behind Viaplay’s recent hit The Box, who shares the advantages he found producing the “challenging” US-set thriller in Scandinavia.
Adi Hasak is feeling “very proud” of his most recent show. The supernatural, psychological thriller The Box debuted on NENT Group-owned Viaplay in November and within a week became the Nordic streamer’s best performing international original.
Completely financed by Viaplay and picked up for global distribution by MGM, the 7 x 30-minute English-language series was created by US writer-producer Hasak, who was behind NBC’s Shades Of Blue, the USA Network adaptation of Eyewitness and Viaplay’s upcoming Margeaux.
Produced by Viaplay Studios and Adi TV Studios, The Box tells the story of Sharon Pici, a Kansas City detective surrounded by headstrong male colleagues who are convinced she is losing her mind – however, the truth is far more sinister, as it appears she has become the target of supernatural powers far greater than herself.
Marcella star Anna Friel plays the troubled Detective Pici, while the cast is rounded out by Peter Stormare (American Gods), Alexander Karim (Zero Dark Thirty) and Olivia Grant (Stardust).
It was interesting for me to go to Scandinavia, to see them reimagining what they thought an American crime show would look like.
While set in the US, The Box – which is police slang for the interrogation room – was filmed in the Swedish capital, Stockholm, and Hasak tells TBI that producing in Europe gave him a freedom that he might not otherwise have found in the US itself.
“While it is a story about cops in Kansas City, it was clear to me that making this in Scandinavia, would be a better way to go,” says Hasak. “I was very inspired by Sergio Leone; you look at what he does to the western. He takes the American western and he reinvents it, he takes Clint Eastwood and they go to Italy to make a western that they dub.”
Hasak says he has “always loved the idea of Europeans reimagining what America is like” and reveals: “It was interesting for me to go to Scandinavia, to get that Scandi-cool, that Scandi-noir, but also to see them reimagining what they thought an American crime show would look like.”
Further highlighting the benefits of producing in Europe, Hasak explains: “I realised that the Americans would never let me make a show like this the way I wanted to make it” and applauds Viaplay for bringing “none of the draconian, corporate note-giving that has become all-too customary in the States right now. They really let us do our thing and we just went for it,” he says.
European work ethic
The advantages of producing in Europe extended to the finances and working environment, reveals the showrunner: “The budget of that show is a fraction of what it would have cost in the States.” He recalls: “I showed up on set and I was like ‘where is everyone?’ – there were days when I had more actors on set than crew. Being an American, we’re used to overspending and having like 50 trucks outside production. The craftsmanship of the Scandinavians was out of this world, the top level, and we just did it for the local budget. In America, that show would have cost probably four to five times as much.”
Hasak adds: “It was really a lesson for me of how to work so efficiently. In Sweden they shoot eight-hour days; in America we shoot 12-hour days, but it worked like a well-oiled machine.”
The exec also has just as much praise for his on-screen talent, sharing: “Your show is as good as number one on the call sheet and Anna Friel is so bold, she’s so good, the word is actually fearless.”
He reveals: “The shit that I had her do: this is a character who, at the beginning of her investigation, falls into her own abyss. She’s suffering from PTSD and does some crazy shit to herself and goes through crazy things and Anna was game. She went for it, and we all followed her and it was extremely inspiring to work with someone at that level of talent.”
Hasak says that the series took inspiration from the works of the likes of David Lynch and Darren Aronofsky as he sought to delve into the “psychological component” of the character. “Are we seeing a woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown or is there some supernatural force that’s out there?” he teases.
If it wasn’t clear by now, Hasak has concerns about the “corporatisation” of the industry, telling TBI last year that it is currently the greatest challenge faced by the business.
“It’s called show business, it’s not called show art, but there’s still a show and a creative component to it,” says Hasak, who believes that corporations, by definition, “aren’t built for the creative process.”
He explains: “They have one goal in mind, making money, which is understandable. If you look right now at the big mergers that have happened, the only people to benefits from these mergers are accountants and lawyers.
“But it’s almost become in these corporations like Game Of Thrones, like the Red Wedding. I mean you have executives of rival companies who all of a sudden find themselves under the same rooftop and knives are out – and this is a vicious business to begin with.”
Hasak believes that it is difficult to create “nuanced, character-driven TV shows or movies when you have a corporation riding on your back,” and notes that: “If you look at the big shows that work, the one thing that they have in common is what I call an uncompromising voice and that voice gets compromised when corporations get involved.”
Despite his reservations, he makes one clear exception for MGM, which is distributing The Box and with who Hasak has partnered with before.
“What I love about MGM is that they take shows that aren’t slam dunks in terms of selling. You look at The Handmaid’s Tale – talk about an ambitious show to sell. They’re not worried about taking challenging shows like The Box. That to me is the perfect synergy.”
“MGM is a corporation, but there are faces there,” says Hasak, describing the firm’s head of global distribution, Chris Ottinger, as “one of the nicest men in the business” and clearly valuing their working relationship – “the fact that he talks to me, the fact that he listens, that’s where it needs to go. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been my experience with other corporations.”
As for the future, The Box was originally touted as a possible anthology series, though Hasak says that depends largely on scheduling and how well the series travels.
“It depends on Anna’s availability, on my availability, how well the show does internationally. In the back of my mind, I always saw it kind of like American Horror Story. In a perfect world we’d use the same actors in different stories, that was the idea behind the idea – but we were commissioned to do a one and done.”
Beyond The Box, Hasak is now back working with Viaplay on Margeaux, which is an “alternate reality” take on true events of the Munich Olympic massacre in 1972. “There were rumours that there was a second hit team, and this takes the story of that second team that’s run by a Mossad psychologist,” reveals Hasak.
Describing the upcoming show as his “big passion project,” it feels as though Hasak has truly found a groove as he continues to bring what he calls “the energy of American storytelling” to European productions. Much like Sergio Leone.