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Interview with Molly Malene Stensgaard
the 22th of May 2023

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by Molly Malene Stensgaard

 "A more or less true spy drama, set in a Europe that never left the Cold War"

Molly is an eclectic Danish writer who is bringing her expansive experience as a renowned editor, commissioning editor and head of development in her current projects. To name a few, Molly has worked on projects such as: BULLSHIT (as creator, post-production), BECOMING ASTRID (as script consultant, 2019), THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT (as editor, 2018), and MELANCHOLIA (editor, 2011).


In addition to being extremely kind, Molly prides herself in working with people who have a sense of humour "because in our line of work you have to be able to laugh a bit".

Can you tell us about your project THE UMBRELLA MURDERER and how you came up with the idea ?


It was my producer, Christian (Rank, producer at MISO FILM) who was contacted by Ulrik Skotte, director of the documentary “the Umbrella Murderer” which is the story of Francesco Gullino. They discussed if there was a potential for a fiction based on the story. Then, Christian turned to me and asked if I wanted to explore with him to see if we could do a fictional story based on this character. The material is just crazy and a bit all over the place.  I worked on it and then I came up with the idea that there should be a present time frame, with its own drama and suspense.

I also added a new protagonist (Ava), who confronts Gullino in the present time frame, so that it wasn’t just him anymore. Because you know, Gullino, he was probably a psychopath. He doesn’t believe in anything, he’s an opportunist and I just think that it’s not very interesting, except if you have somebody who contrasts that, and that is Ava. Gullino is very entertaining and a good motor for the story, but it doesn’t necessarily make him a very interesting main character. I also felt the need to add more to his character in comparison to the real Gullino.


That was the very beginning, then we worked on it a bit more and we applied for Boosting Concepts and that’s how we are here today.  


This idea to play around with multiple time frames in the story, is an interesting structure that not all creators are as comfortable with as you are. Do you think it is linked to your experience as an editor?


 I don’t know. Maybe yes. Sometimes, there are structural elements that I imagine almost as a graphic image. And I do use whiteboards a lot! I draw everything on it. Maybe it’s a bit like the graphic timeline when you edit. It really helps me to have this structural overview this way when building a story.


The week you spent in the first camp of Boosting Concepts arrived then really early in your process; can you explain how it has helped your story?


Yes, this project is still at an early stage, there is not yet a draft of any episodes. And the week we had in Ireland was filled with a lot of discussion and different inputs, and I think our concept was at the perfect time in which these inputs were very valuable. We were stable in our own opinions, but nothing was carved in stone. It was truly good timing for us. We were able to try out things, have different viewpoints on the story and hear feedback from different perspectives. And it was also fun! There was a sense of community that was established there, and I think I went home with this feeling that there is something about Europe, there is a common language, there is something shared. And that’s really beautiful in a way.


About Europe, your project has a Danish/Italian character in Gullino, and now you decided to make Ava, your protagonist, German. Is it a direct consequence of the camp and working with your consultant Marlene Melchior?


No, actually we made that decision even before seeing that Marlene would be working with us. Christian and I were discussing Ava’s nationality. At first, she was Italian, but we were thinking that it may be too many Italians… And then we talked about Germany a lot because they have this recent history of both East and West within one country. So, it became obvious to us that Ava should be German. It was one of our working points, entering the session, to get to know her and what she comes from. And Marlene was a great help with that and how it could influence the story. At EWC we had the luck not only to work with a German consultant but also with a German broadcaster in our concept team (Dr. Simone Emmelius, SVP International Fiction at ZDF).


Did you get inspiration from meeting all the different nationalities represented at EWC ?


Absolutely, it’s always stimulating. And, I have always tried to work with the difference between national and universal. I think the very good stories must have something specific and something universal. And it is sometimes surprising what is universal and what is not. You get to find that in these international settings, like the one we had in Cork.


I was really touched by the story you presented, that Ava was abandoned by this beautiful Italian man who was her first love, and who reappears into her life.


I think that this is part of the universal that I was mentioning. Because, this story, the spy setting, this period of the fall of communism in Europe, it feels different whether you live it in Bulgaria, Denmark or Germany. So, it was important for us to find what is universal, and I think that it’s always something that you can connect to on a human and emotional level.

It would have been boring to also only make it universal, and not have this excitement of all the different nationalities sometimes clashing. But it would also be quite bad if it was only national, and especially if solely Danish, because it wouldn’t make sense with a story like this. Although I think that the Danish perspective here is quite interesting, because we have such a strong trust in our government, with almost no corruption. We have a very trustful society in general and this has been the case for a long time. It’s vastly different if you talk to Germans, or Italians, they don’t necessarily trust their governments, there is a lot of skepticism. In this story we have Gullino, and how does a character who trusts absolutely no one – and especially not a democratically elected government – behave?

We had a lot of very useful, almost philosophical, discussions in Cork with Christian, Marlene and also with our two appointed broadcasters (Simone Emmelius from ZDF, Germany and Frank Agnew from RTE, Ireland) about these things.


This is truly fascinating, because now your cold war spy story has evolved into comparative politics, and a commentary about the current climate of mistrust into the national governments in Europe.


I think that we needed to move the original story to a different temporal and even spatial perspective to make it even more relevant to what is happening today in Europe. For instance, there is a documentary coming up soon called Shadow War in English, it was created by four of the Nordic public broadcasters and it shows how Russia is conducting its war even in Scandinavia at the moment. So, I think that is also something we would like for our show to do, which is to connect to the present time and to these kinds of current stories.

This was the topic of a lot of the conversations we had in Ireland, and that is something that I just love about development. You can find the steppingstones that direct your story in the right way. For instance, in Cork we really were looking at Ava as the main character, as she is now more compelling than the original character from reality.


It led us to distance ourselves from the real life Gullino and treat him more as a fictional character. The real Gullino will be with us as inspiration in many ways, but we also want to make this connection to the present days and have him involved in some of the destructive movements we have today. It became even clearer when I came home and worked on the material. It also ties up well with a curiosity we have had all along: what happened to these people from the secret services after the end of the cold war? What are they doing now, are they still active? Someone told us for instance that almost none of the former KGB employees were fired, what does that mean? What did KGB transform into then? It is a lot of questions, and that was a major part of our conversations in Ireland with Marlene and our appointed broadcasters.

So, the session in Ireland was a lot of notes and impressions and exchanges; then the real work started when we returned.


It was truly amazing seeing you work so well together, a Danish writer and a Australian/German consultant, did you keep on working together on the project between the two camps?


Yes, it is a pleasure working with her. She is really clever and also funny! I always choose to work with people with a good sense of humor, because in our line of work you have to be able to laugh a bit, right? It was interesting to talk with her about Ava. I was super happy to do develop Ava with her.


Did you have any other encounters of writers at EWC that could lead into future collaborations?


For sure there are people that were with us in the session that I would like to work with, but I also haven’t considered that to be honest. I think the atmosphere for me was to work alongside colleagues, with their own projects, that are very skilled at writing and that I loved talking to. This sense of community again.

It also helped for me to understand how writers worked in other countries, and for Christian to see the producers’ realities all around Europe, this was really interesting.

And then you met broadcasters from different countries, all very competent people! It was truly wonderful how they integrated into our team and also to understand something about their reality.


Yes, that is one thing that comes up often in this network is how crucial it is to understand each other’s point of view and respective realities in order to be able to work altogether. I also think it might have helped in being a bit more patient with the writers!


Absolutely, and I think it’s so nice to have these talks in the development process. It allows for everyone to get a clearer understanding of what they can expect and at what stage. For instance, you can’t expect everything to happen in the first draft; but you also have to know at what point you can expect it, because otherwise this something you’re expecting might not happen. This reminds me of how I, as an editor, could go crazy when someone asked me for the 20th time on a first cut ‘isn’t a bit too long’? Yes of course it’s long! It’s a first cut!

So having these kinds of conversations like we had in Ireland, with producers and broadcasters and fellow writers really help to understand what to say and when to say it at the different stages of development.

And also, as importantly, our discussions really helped us understand that in Europe there is something shared.  After Cork,  I had this feeling there that there is really something European that we all share.  

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Consultant Writer
Marlene Melchior

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Christian Rank

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Attached Broadcaster

Pernille Bech Christensen

Mette Heiberg

Want to learn more about Boosting Concepts?

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