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How the production team of “True Detective: Night Country” used Iceland as an Alaska double | Features

HBO's True Detective: Nightland is set in the fictional village of Ennis, Alaska. This location was always intended in the scripts of screenwriter and director Issa Lopez, but in reality, filming in Alaska was almost as difficult as placing the series' “corpse sickles,” the entangled and frozen bodies that set the investigation in motion.

Mari Jo Winkler, executive producer, worked with British Columbia-based location manager Robin Mounsey, who has worked in cold locations in the Arctic, the Norwegian fjords and the Canadian Rockies, including The Revenant And The mountain between usto depict the arctic course of the show.

They realized pretty quickly that Alaska was out of the question. For the kind of remote Arctic wilderness they wanted to shoot, Alaska was – ironically – too inhospitable. Some of the areas were so remote that the only option was to fly in the actors and crew.

In addition, there are no tax breaks for production in Alaska and only a limited filming infrastructure, so HBO would have to bring everything and everyone to every shoot. “That wasn't necessarily financially feasible and also not a good idea from an ecological point of view,” explains Winkler.

The team initially considered the Canadian Arctic and Iceland as two other options, but Canada faced the same hospitality issues. The decision to film in Iceland was made easier by the recently increased 35% tax break that the production was able to take advantage of on its reported budget of around $60 million.

Together with Leifur Dagfinnsson from the Icelandic production company True North, production took place in the Icelandic capital Reykjavik. “The advantage of Reykjavik for us was that many of our filming locations were only a 30-minute drive from the city center,” said Winkler. “You could station a crew there efficiently.”

Having an Icelandic crew on the show was especially helpful given the weather conditions they faced. “They're built for this environment,” Winkler says of the local crew. “They're problem solvers and know how to work in the extreme conditions we worked in.”

True Detective Nightland

But snow alone doesn't make an Alaskan village. When Winkler came on board, one of her goals was to scout Alaskan locations to ensure they could recreate an authentic, if fictional, Alaskan town. Along with production designer Dan Taylor, they flew to Anchorage and spent several days in the towns of Nome and Kotzebue, the latter of which is 29 miles above the Arctic Circle, before heading to Iceland.

While in Kotzebue, the team worked closely with Iñupiat families, and in particular with Qaluraq Lance Kramer, who sits on the board of the Alaska Native Corporation, to ensure they authentically portrayed the community's culture, customs and daily life. They were also able to capture some drone footage in the state to bring the viewer closer to the reality of the Alaskan Arctic.

Then it was up to Taylor and his team to recreate an entire Alaskan town in a completely foreign country. While scouting locations with TrueNorth's senior location manager Thor Kjartansson, he discovered a main street near the Icelandic town of Keflavik that had formerly been part of a U.S. Army radar station. The street had a much more “American” style. It was wider and the houses were less uniformly built. This provided the ideal canvas for Ennis to work on.

They shot key scenes including Jodie Foster's character's house, a bar and a laundromat in Keflavik. They also shot aerial shots in a town called Dalvik for the scene where the “corpse head” is driven through the town.

To use Iceland as an Alaska model, Taylor had to source a number of unique US items. These included not only US road signs and cars, but also radiators.

“For every interior we used as a location, we had to hire plumbers,” says Taylor. “First we had to cut the radiators, remove them, paint them or wallpaper them. And when we left the property, we brought the radiators back in.”

There were also electrical outlets, refrigerators and Taylor's least favorite “damn light switches” that needed replacing. All of this work, combined with Iceland's wintry weather, meant it was an extensive and tightly timed shoot. “We had a very busy schedule for dismantling the set. We finished in 112 days,” says Taylor.

Flexibility is key

“We were always ready to turn around on the spot and go in a different direction if there was no snow or too much snow – we had several locations ready to shoot.”

In other words, production couldn't afford to slow down. Fortunately, the Icelandic crews were “talented and resourceful,” Taylor says, especially given the extreme weather.

Dagfinnson says Icelandic crews “can bring a main unit and large teams into those areas at certain times when filming is more difficult due to the weather, but we can do that safely and with great results on camera.”

Winkler remembers one particular time when a location she and Lopez had scouted the day before was perfect, but then they arrived for their night shoot and found the wind was impenetrable.

Kali Reis as Evangeline Navarro in “True Detective: Night Country”

“Issa got out of her car and said, 'What's going on? It's so windy. We can't shoot. How are we supposed to shoot?' And I said, 'If we couldn't shoot, they would have notified us before we came all the way here.' And we're screaming [this] each other because it is so windy that you can't hear anything.

“We went to Thor [Kjartansson] and said, “What do we do with the dialogue? How can we shoot?” He said, “No problem.” And he got a van and drove it onto the ice to block the wind so we could shoot. We learned not to panic,” laughs Winkler.

Filming in Iceland also taught them a lot. “It was about embracing the adventure, but also being useful and adapting to the environment. I think everyone should learn how to do that,” says Winkler.

Sustainability was a big part True Detective: Nightlandproduction schedule and is also a key part of True North's ethos; Island is powered by 85% renewable energy. “We shoot on sets and indoor venues that run on clean energy. They're also wired for electric vehicles,” says Winkler.

For Dagfinnsson, the sustainability measures introduced are to True Detective: Night Country's production “was a huge step and set a new standard for future productions. Hand in hand with HBO we were able to take this to a level we have never seen before in Icelandic productions.”

In a country like Iceland or a state like Alaska, the impact of climate change is clearly felt, says Dagfinnsson. During production, HBO's sustainability director Heidi Kimberg was “right by my side,” says Winkler, “making sure we did our best.”

Winkler adds: “You always want to leave a place in better condition than you found it. And you want to leave something behind, be it a training team or a piece of new clean energy technology.”About True Detective: Night Country“It was a very cooperative exchange. They learned from us. We learned from them and we left inspired.”

Anna Harden

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