Charlotte Brändström is an award-winning director and graduate of the Directing Program at the American Film Institute. She has directed feature films, mini-series and series in many different countries such as the United States, France, England, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Morocco, Czech Republic, Thailand and South Africa. She recently finished directing two episodes for Netflix Sweden titled “The Unlikely Murder.” Her most interesting directing credits include: “Lord of the Rings” TV series for Amazon Studios, “The Outsider” for HBO; “Jupiter’s Legacy,” “The Witcher,” and “Away” for Netflix; “The Man in the High Castle” for Amazon; and “Counterpart” and “Outlander” for Starz. She also directed the entirety of two limited series in Europe: “Conspiracy of Silence” for Viaplay and “Disparue” for FR2.
At this year’s Canneseries, Tara Karajica sat down with Charlotte Brändström to discuss her work in television as well women in TV and what she is tackling next.
How did you get into filmmaking?
Charlotte Brändström: Well, I started off studying Anthropology because I wanted to do documentaries, and then I got to Los Angeles and made some short films. I applied to the American Film Institute and I got in. And then, I did a lot of film editing and worked as an assistant editor. Then, I wrote a script that got produced – my first feature – and since then, I just kept directing.
Did you consciously choose to work in TV?
C.B.: I never made a difference between TV and film, at least in the beginning. I just wanted to make films, and when I started, there was a lot of TV movies. There were actually smaller features; also there was obviously less money and they ended up on the TV screen, but it still was filmmaking. I started off in features, then got into TV, then back to features, and back to TV. So, I’ve gone back and forth a lot. I made a lot of independent features in Sweden and France and I made a lot of various TV limited series, TV movies, series pilots, all kinds of stuff. And today, I find series and TV have become incredibly exciting to be part of, mainly because there are such great characters that you can develop because, instead of making a film where you have two hours to tell the story, you can actually tell a story in six or eight hours. So, you get much more into the depth of the characters’ arcs, and you get a lot of twists and turns in the stories.
The Golden Age of TV has been at the forefront of discussions in the past few years. What is your opinion on the matter?
C.B.: There was a time, when we were making TV movies, you could compare those movies to features and today what has become very exciting is that the Golden Age of TV really feels like it’s TV series; it’s finding a really interesting visual imprint. We can tell stories over a longer time and there are a lot of different ways to air them and obviously platforms like Amazon, Netflix, Apple have changed things. And now, our work is really shown all over the world, not only in one country. So, it’s a very, very exciting time for TV and there are so many different ways to make TV films and TV series today. There is a huge demand for it too.
You worked with Netflix, Amazon, US networks, in France, in Scandinavia… What are the differences in terms of work and work process? Can you talk about these different experiences?
C.B.: Obviously, in the US, you have bigger budgets than in Europe, but my work, in a way, is pretty much the same. I’ve always tried to find a story that I liked, to be involved with people that are interesting creatively, and we could talk about the differences for hours, but in short, I feel like, from my point of view as a director, whether I am doing a series in the States or a series in Europe, I always direct the same way; I direct actors. I work very closely with the actors. I try to find a really good DP. The really big difference is that you obviously have a bigger budget in the States, you have much more equipment, different ways to sell the story, but when you have less money like in Europe, you also have to come up with creative solutions and it’s very challenging and I find it also very, very interesting because it pushes you more to come up with solutions for what you’re doing.
How much freedom do you have in both circumstances, in the US, where there’s more money, and in Europe, where there’s more creative freedom?
C.B.: Well, it really depends of the project. You can work in the States on projects where you actually have a lot of creative freedom; to name one show I did only one episode of called The Outsider, where Jason Bateman did the pilot, produced and also wanted every director to come up with something very personal. I’m not saying you can do anything you want, but they didn’t want much coverage. They wanted there to be style and you didn’t have anybody on set telling you what to do; they were just pushing you to be as creative as possible, and that was amazing. That’s in America. And then, I worked in Sweden – I just did something for Netflix and that was also great because Netflix and I had talked about the series before we shot and we were all, again, quite free to do what we wanted to do. I’ve also, of course, worked on series where you have a very strong showrunner or writer on set who really wants it to be very specific and they have a much stronger demand, and you fold into it. What I find the most interesting is when you have a writer, a producer, a production company, a network, a platform that hires you for a reason. If they hire you for reason, it means that they hire you because you’re good at something specific, and they actually want you to express your style, give a lot of yourself in the series. Obviously, you have to be smart when you do it and try to tell the story in the best way possible. But I will not say that you are less free in the States than in Europe because that’s not true. It really depends on who you work with and what you’re working on.
Do you have a favorite project and one that has changed your worldview or your way of directing?
C.B.: Not really. I’ve been directing for a long time now – for thirty years – and you keep evolving constantly. I mean, there’s always one project every year, every two years that’s the outsider, one that made a big difference. I love the show that I worked on called Counterpart. I loved working on Disparue in France, which was a limited series that did very well. I had worked on a Swedish series called Johan Falk and the very next one that I did for Netflix, The Unlikely Murder, that was very interesting. So, there have obviously been specific series over the years that are probably more personal, different from others, but it’s not only one or two, it just keeps evolving all the time and your story keeps evolving because of who you work with, who you meet. I am a director; I believe very much in the script you get. There are two sorts of directors. Some people have a very strong style and you say: “This is his style; all his projects look the same and there is this specific style.” And then, you have other directors who sort of adapt their style to the storytelling like Steven Soderbergh for instance, when he directs Erin Brockovich, or Traffic – the two movies look very different stylistically and visually because they are different stories. When you take the Coen brothers whom I admire – they’re probably the best today to me, and I find them amazing and their movies are very different one from the other – you can recognize this style and at the same time they are very different. So, you keep changing all the time, I think, and you keep learning. The most amazing and the most fantastic thing about this job is that you always feel like there’s always progress to make; you can always change; you can always get better; you can always do things differently. There is a constant learning process and it’s a challenge, and it keeps you on your toes and you have to try to give your best each time and come up with the best way to tell the story you have in your hands, but everything starts with the script. The feeling I get when I read the script sort of guides me.
Is there a dream project for you that you would absolutely love to work on?
CB.: Yes, I’m actually working on getting the rights to something, so there is one, yes!
Can you talk about how it is to come in in the middle of a series, start one or end one and not do the whole TV show?
C.B.: Well, I think, ideally, it’s when you actually come in and do a whole limited series, but when I did The Unlikely Murder, which is actually the series I did for Netflix last year, I did the first two episodes, but I wasn’t available to finish it because I moved on actually to The Lord of the Rings. That was already decided in advance, so I only had time to do the first two. It’s always frustrating when you only do the first two and then you have to leave it and, at the same time, it’s very interesting to create a style and set something up. It’s the same thing when you do the ending because you are ending a series and you have to understand where you come from. Everything is different. I’m taking back the fact that it’s frustrating. It’s not frustrating; it’s just different each time. But I think that the ideal setting is when you have time and you get the chance to do every episode because you’re telling the whole story yourself. But what’s very interesting when you jump in and do one episode is that it’s pushing you to tell a story differently, maybe not always the way you have planned it, but you always learn things that you’re using next time. So, it’s always different. I don’t know how to explain it, but I just love what I do, so I just feel like it’s fantastic to be part of this world.
There’s been a lot of talk about women in film and TV these past four years. What’s your take on it? How is it in TV now?
C.B.: It’s getting easier. Now, I also got to the point where I’m actually a woman with a lot of experience, so that’s obviously helpful because they want to hire a woman. But, when I started, I had to fight my way through when things weren’t as easy as they are today for women, and I’m so happy because hopefully it will become easier for other women starting today to get certain jobs, but I feel like there is still a long way to go for women and, at the same time, it’s constantly improving. But there was a moment when I was starting where I felt like I would walk into a room and I would feel like people had a tendency to give me a sentimental drama, and not necessarily a big action movie. And, I love action. I love watching all kinds of stuff on TV and in the cinema, so I wanted to do different films. I wanted to do edgier, darker things and so, I’ve been pushing towards that stuff all my life to also show that as a woman you can make very different films. As an example, you can take The Hurt Locker, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, which I think that was an amazing film or Zero Dark Thirty. And those don’t look necessarily like female movies, woman director’s movies, and they are just films and we are just directors. But today, I would say that I think there has definitely been a lot of progress for women.
Apart from Kathryn Bigelow and The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, do you have another favorite film by a female filmmaker and another favorite female filmmaker?
C.B.: I just talked about her because I just saw her movie again the other day. There are plenty that I love. Nomadland was amazing. I think that Jane Campion is a genius. And I like Julie Taymor. She has done really interesting and very different films.
What are your next projects?
C.B.: I’m actually just doing one episode of a series for FX. They are remaking Shogun. It’s Japan in the 16th Century, and it’s told from the point of view of the Japanese, so it’s very different from the original. It’s really the adaptation of the novel, and I’m working again with a showrunner that I think is amazing and that I love called Justin Marks. I did two episodes for him. I did the finale of the series that he had created a few years ago called Counterpart with J.K. Simmons and now, he’s doing that, so he’s asked me to do one really fantastic episode of it, so I’m actually leaving for Vancouver to do that.
Photo credits: Olivier Vigerie.
This interview was conducted virtually at the 2021 Canneseries Festival.