Mette Heeno: “In ‘Snow Angels’ the case is just an excuse to tell a story about these women”

The Swedish-Danish mini-series “Snow Angels” begins with the disappearance of five-week-old baby Lucas from his home in a Stockholm suburb on the night before Christmas, as a heavy snowstorm paralyzes Sweden. It plunges the child’s mother Jenni—mother of two—into despair, and veteran police officer Alice of the Stockholm police takes up the case. But they are not the only ones whose lives are touched by it, as this suspenseful crime drama, created and written by Danish screenwriter Mette Heeno (b. 1976), focuses on several women. Next to the mother of little Lucas and the police officer, there’s also a child nurse, Maria, who crosses their paths and becomes crucial in this gripping and multi-layered character study, dealing with motherhood, feminity, and family. The fate of those three women intertwines after the disappearance of Lucas and has far-reaching consequences.

The series, originally titled “Snöänglar,” was one of this year’s highlights of the Berlinale Series selection, and in the meantime, it aired on Scandinavian television to much acclaim. Anna Zackrisson, director of the television series “The Restaurant” (2018-2019) and “White Wall” (2020), helmed this absorbing six-part mini-series starring actresses Josefin Asplund as Jenni, Eva Melander as Alice, and Maria Rossing as nurse Maria. Ardalan Esmaili plays the role of Salle, Jenni’s partner.

Screenwriter Mette Heeno has over a dozen films to her credit. However, she may be best remembered as the creative force behind the Danish comedy-drama “Splitting Up Together” (2016), nominated for several Robert Awards (the Danish equivalent to the Oscars). The series was remade in Belgium (“#hetisingewikkeld,” 2017) and the U.S. (also titled “Splitting Up Together,” 2018-2019).

In the following Zoom interview, Ms. Heeno talks about the series “Snow Angels” and shares her views on the characters, the storyline, and the structure—the series goes back and forth in time in a very inventive way. She has constructed the series to observe the actors and the characters in their habitat and to be absorbed by the story—she didn’t punch it up, nor did she upstage it—and she turned it into an honest, fascinating, and beautifully acted crime drama.

The series is available in several territories (TV, DVD and/or streaming).

Ms. Heeno, how did “Snow Angels” come about?

I have written a lot of dramedy, comedy, and very character-based stuff, and I wanted to challenge myself by throwing in some sort of crime engine into what I normally do. To me, it’s a very sematic story, and I wanted to add the concept of motherhood in all directions. Instead of making a relationship drama, I thought, ‘What if you throw in the worst thing that could ever happen to a mother, which is to lose her child. And what happens if you think you might be the reason why you lost your child?’ So that was the idea, and I thought it would be all the more interesting to tell the story both backwards and forwards. Then you peel off the layers and get to know the characters better and better, without losing the suspense of the crime. It was actually quite difficult to do this without traditional police stuff like a police investigation. But I think it worked because of the broken chronology of the story, so you’d still be into this relationship, the emotions of Jenni, Salle, and Nicole, and their family life—and maintain the engine of the plot.

You have these three female characters—the mother, the policewoman, and the nurse—who make the series not only a character-driven study, but you’re also looking at it from a woman’s perspective.

Yes, they’re the core of the story; they’re the ones giving birth, and in the story, there are several relationships between mothers and children. You also see it with Jenni’s body; when they go back in time, you see her pregnant, you see her emotions when this baby is growing inside of her.

As you were writing the screenplay, what was the most difficult thing for you? The structure of the story, or the characters and how they interact with one another, both in the past and present?

The structure was quite hard because I wanted it to be a crime drama that goes back and forth in time, but there was also the need to explore all the characters. That was a difficult balance. All the characters are struggling to be the best version of themselves, but because of the terrible circumstances or missed opportunities, it becomes very problematic. Take Jenni, for example; she has a difficult background, she had been on drugs earlier on, and it’s very easy to judge her as a bad mother; and then there is another mother who is presented in the series in a much more civilized way. She looks wealthy, very loving, and caring as if she would nurse her child all the time, but she turns out to be the exact opposite. It’s a way to describe that motherhood is difficult and very complex, and you can’t judge the person you see because she can turn out to be someone totally different. So, again, you have to peel off your expectations.

Josefin Asplund with Nikole Baronas as mother and daughter in “Snow Angels” | Lumière

Can you give a rough estimate of how long it took to write the screenplay because it must have been a complicated puzzle?

On and off, from the idea to the end of production, it took about three years. Quite long, but, of course, there were breaks, and when the director came on board, she had a lot of good ideas, and we collaborated very well together. Then I did some rewrites, and while we were shooting in Stockholm, I did some more rewriting in between. But in all, I think about three years.

Actors who play a part step in a project, do their scenes, and once their work is finished, they’re off to the next project. But you have to be as passionate about your script each day for three years in a row. How difficult is that?

[Laughs.] I love my work. I love to work with those characters; it’s fun to dwell on them and explore them. And there were many phases: the first year, I wrote very much on my own. That’s very hard and lonely. But the network gave me notes, and that helped to push the story forward. And when the director got involved—she was amazing and had so many beautiful thoughts and ideas, and everything gradually fell into place. Then I also got a lot of adrenaline by the time we started casting. Because when you see who will play the characters, you think, ‘What can this actor or actress do with the character?’ When you have readings with the actors, you start seeing everything visually, and a lot of them have really good ideas. The actors shape their characters; you see their expression, their movements, and it becomes more of a collaboration. The actors help you to stay in love with the story.

Were you also involved in the casting?

Not that much. The woman who played the nurse [Maria Rossing], I wrote that part for her because I know her very well. I thought she was perfect. But I don’t know that many Swedish actors, so casting in Sweden was mostly done by the director and the producer [Georgie Mathew].

Maria Rossing as nurse Maria | Lumière

In most crime dramas, police officers play supporting roles, and we hardly have any information about who they really are or where they come from. But in “Snow Angels,” there is the character of Alice, the policewoman, and we get her whole background. We’re not used to an approach like that.

I like to write the back story of the characters, so we know where they come from when they make choices. Then you don’t only see them through their case; you see them through their personality. They’re real people, struggling with their own problems. Alice is not a very good caretaker—that’s probably why she never had any children—and she’s working too much, although it’s Christmas. That gives an interesting perspective on the character who is trying to solve this case. I think the case is just an excuse to tell a story about these women.

At a certain point, you realize that Jenni’s daughter, Nicole, will play a very important role in the end. And even though you have this time frame of six episodes—six hours—it seems timing is very crucial for everything the characters do?

Yes. When you’re telling a story that is a combination of drama, crime, and thriller, it’s very important that you give the exact information at the time when you need to. You shouldn’t, as an audience, know everything from the beginning because you have to be open and be curious. That was something I would adjust during the rewrites by taking something out of one episode and put it in another episode. I kept asking myself, ‘When do you really need information about this or that, and when do you really want to know more?’ That was something the editors [Linda Jildmalm, Malin Lindström] were also very alert about, like how do we keep the pace in something slow, so you won’t get bored or give up when you see some women just walking around in pain [laughs].

Did you stay with the project all through the editing?

Well, I saw a lot of cuts, but the editor and the director edited the series in Sweden, and I couldn’t travel because of Covid-19. But they kept me updated.

In terms of filmmaking and television, Denmark has a very powerful voice, also with Thomas Vinterberg winning a BAFTA and an Oscar very recently [“Druk”]. The timing of “Snow Angels” couldn’t be better.

Yes, that’s amazing for such a small country. We even won two Academy Awards; the editor who won for Best Editing was also Danish [Mikkel E.G. Nielsen for “Sound of Metal”].

Denmark is known for its high standard in film and television. Is it difficult to live up to that?

[Laughs.] That’s something I don’t think about at all. It took me three years to make “Snow Angels,” and I am glad I got the opportunity and do the projects that I really want to do and that I care about. We’re all proud that so many great things are coming out of this very small country. But it doesn’t make me nervous or anxious. I just work.

And your work is highly appreciated. I read that the reviews of “Snow Angels” in Denmark and Sweden have been very positive.

Yes, we got very good reviews, and I hear the series is selling really well abroad.

Are you already working on a new project?

I’m working on a new show for Danish television, a show that takes place in the 1960s, a very character-based comedy-dramedy.

Suppose you get a phone call from the U.S., and they ask you to write an adaptation for an American remake of “Snow Angels.” Would you be interested?

Not really [laughs]. I think an adaptation would be quite difficult because you have to lean on the country’s culture, and it would be difficult to change your own perspective. I think “Snow Angels” is very much a Scandinavian series; it’s so cold and dark, and it could only take place in Denmark, or Sweden, or Norway—at least, to my knowledge, and with all I know about the characters, or the way the system works, how the hospitals work, how we treat mothers, how midwives work… So I think it would be tough to adapt that to other countries and other places. If they really want to, I think it’s better if they do it themselves.

Zoom interview,
April 28, 2021

“Snow Angels” (2021, trailer)

FILMS

TERKEL I KNIBE, a.k.a. THE TROUBLE WITH TERKEL and TERKEL IN TROUBLE (2004, animated) DIR Kresten Vestbjerg Andersen, Thorbjøn Christoffersen, Stefan Fjeldmark PROD Thomas Heinesen, Trine Heidegaard SCR Mette Heeno (story development by Stefan Fjeldmark, Karsten Killerich; radio serial by Anders Matthesen) ED Per Risager, Martin Wichmann Andersen, Mikael Ryelund [Mikael R. Ryelund] MUS Bo Rasmussen [Bossy Bo] CAST Anders Matthesen, Kim Matthesen

FAKIREN FRA BILBAO, a.k.a. THE FAKIR (2004) DIR Peter Flinth PROD Mie Andreasen, Tivi Magnusson SCR Mette Heeno (novel “Fakiren fra Bilbao” [1997] by Bjarne Reuter) CAM Eric Kress ED Mogens Hagedorn MUS Jeppe Kaas, Søren Hyldegaard CAST Sidse Babett Knudsen, Moritz Bleibtreu, Julie Zangenberg, Aksel Leth, Ole Thestrup, Peter Gantzler, Fares Fares

NYNNE (2005) DIR Jonas Elmer PROD Lars Feilberg, Christian E. Christiansen SCR Mette Heeno (novel “Nynnes Dagbog” by Henriette Lind, Lotte Thorsen, Anette Vestergaard) CAM Niels Reedtz Johansen ED My Thordal MUS Søren Hyldegaard CAST Mille Dinesen, Lars Kaalund, Mette Agnete Horn, Stine Stengade, Ole Lemmeke, Jimmy Jørgensen

PRINCESS (2006, animated) DIR Anders Morgenthaler PROD Sarita Christensen, Jens Arnoldus SCR Mette Heeno, Anders Morgenthaler CAM Kasper Tuxen Andersen (live action) ED Mikkel E.G. Nielsen MUS Casper Clausen, Mads Brauer CAST (voice only) Thure Lindhardt, Stine Fischer Christensen, Jens Arentzen, Liv Corfixen, Ida Dwinger, Tommy Kenter

SUPERVOKSEN, a.k.a. TRIPLE DARE (2006) DIR Christina Rosendahl PROD Thomas Heinesen SCR Mette Heeno CAM Sebastian Winterø ED Morten Højbjerg MUS Vagn Luv CAST Emma Leth, Cathrine Bjørn, Amalle Lindegård, Sebastian Jessen, Charlotte Sieling, Lars Brygmann

EKKO, a.k.a. ECHO (2007) DIR Anders Morgenthaler PROD Sarita Christensen SCR Mette Heeno, Anders Morgenthaler CAM Kasper Tuxen ED Theis Schmidt MUS Henrik Lindstrand CAST Kim Bodnia, Villads Milthers Fritsche, Stine Fischer Christensen, Peter Stromare, Lucas Munk Billing, Laura Drasbæk

FLUGTEN, a.k.a. THE ESCAPE (2009) DIR Kathrine Windfeld PROD Morten Kaufmann SCR Mette Heeno, Rasmus Heisterberg (novel by Olav Hergel) CAM Jonak Alarik ED Sofia Lindgren MUS Jean-Paul Wall CAST Iben Hjejle, Lars Mikkelsen, Faegh Zamani, Henrik Prip, Sonja Richter, Vibeke Hastrup, Søren Spanning

THE TROUBLE WITH TERKEL (2010, animated) DIR Thorbjøn Christoffersen, Stefan Fjeldmark; Randolph Kret (live action) PROD Trine Heidegaard, Thomas Heinesen SCR Randolph Kret (story by Mette Heeno) CAM Randolph Kret ED Per Risager, Daniel Schneider, Martin Wichmann Andersen [Martin Wichmann], Mikael Ryelund [Mikael R. Ryelund] MUS Bo Rasmussen CAST (voice only) Mike Olsen, Shark Firestone, Richard Janes, Chad Ridgely, Eve Mauro, Carrie Keagan, Vanessa Gomez

LÆRKEVEJ – TIL DØDEN OS SKILLER (2012) DIR Mogens Hagedorn PROD Mie Andreasen SCR Mette Heeno CAM Søren Bay ED Elin Pröjts MUS Flemming Nordkrog CAST Søs Egelind, Søren Spanning, Anette Støvelbæk, Henrik Prip, Christian Tafdrup, Claes Bang, Laura Drasbæk

TALENTTYVEN (2012) DIR Jonatan Spang PROD Bo Ehrhardt, Maja Dyekjær SCR Mette Heeno, Jonatan Spang CAM Lars Reinholdt [Lars Reinholdt Jensen] CAST Mille Lehfeldt, Casper Crump, Frank Hvam, Jonatan Spang, Mille Dineson, Nicolas Bro, Birthe Neumann

ALL INCLUSIVE (2014) DIR Hella Joof PROD Mie Andreasen SCR Mette Heeno CAM Kim Høgh ED Cathrine Ambus MUS Flemming Nordkrog CAST Maria Rossing, Bodil Jørgensen, Danica Curcic, Mikael Birkkjær, Rasmus Bjerg, Carsten Bjørnland

ALL INCLUSIVE (2017) DIR Karin Fahlén PROD Anna Anthony, Anna Croneman SCR Daniel Karlsson (screenplay ALL INCLUSIVE [2014] by Mette Heeno) CAM Simon Pramsten ED Fredrik Morheden CAST Liv Mjönes, Suzanne Reuter, Jennie Silfverhjelm, Goran Bogdan, Jonas Karlsson, Hjalmar Gustafsson, Ksenija Marinkovic

LARGUÉES, a.k.a. DUMPED (2018) DIR Eloïse Lang PROD Stéphanie Carreras, Philippe Pujo SCR Eloïse Lang, Camille Treiner, Olivier Treiner, Philippe Lefebvre (screenplay ALL INCLUSIVE [2014] by Mette Heeno) CAM Antoine Mood ED Valérie Deseine, Thibaut Blanchet MUS Fred Avril CAST Miou-Miou, Camille Cottin, Camille Chamoux, Johan Heldenbergh, Thomas Scimeca, Olivia Côte, Youssef Hajdi

HAPPY ENDING (2018) DIR Hella Joof PROD Mie Andreasen EXEC PROD – SCR Mette Heeno CAM Kim Høgh ED Julius Krebs Damsbo MUS Flemming Nordkrog CAST Birthe Neumann, Kurt Ravn, Charlotte Sieling, Marianne Høgsbro, Tammi Øst, Rikke Bilde, Emilie Kroyer Koppel

TV SERIES/MINI-SERIES

LANGT FRA LAS VEGAS (2002-2003), 6 episodes
MONGBERG & TUXEN (2004), 4 episodes
LÆRKEVEJ (2009-2010), 22 episodes
RITA (2013-2015), 2 episodes
LILLEMAND (2015), 8 episodes
BEDRE SKILT END ALDRIG (2016, a.k.a. SPLITTING UP TOGETHER), 8 episodes
THE RAIN (2018), 1 episode
SPLITTING UP TOGETHER (2018-2019, characters created by Mette Heeno)
#HETISINGEWIKKELD (2017, characters created by Mette Heeno)
SNÖÄNGLAR (2021), 6 episodes

SHORTS

FUCKING 14 (2004)
MIN FAR ER BOKSER (2005)
BARE HOLGER (2005)