'The Bridge' producer Meredith Stiehm on translating Denmark/Sweden into U.S./Mexico
Diane Kruger and Demian Bichir play cops from opposite sides of the border in new drama from 'Cold Case' creator
Wednesday night at 10, FX premieres “The Bridge,” a new longform cop drama adapted from a popular Scandinavian crime series about a dead body found on the bridge connecting Denmark and Sweden, which eventually leads to a serial killer operating in both countries. Here, the action has been moved to the U.S./Mexico border crossing between El Paso and Juarez, with Diane Kruger playing an American cop with undiagnosed Asperger’s and Demian Bichir as her charming Mexican counterpart.
Leading the adaptation is veteran producer Meredith Stiehm, who cut her teeth on “NYPD Blue,” created and ran “Cold Case” for years, and was part of the murder’s row writing staff for the first two seasons of “Homeland,” where she was responsible for some of the series’ best episodes (including “The Weekend” in season 1 and “The Clearing” in season 2).
I liked “The Bridge” quite a bit (review to follow later in the week), and I recently spoke with Stiehm about the choices she made in adapting the original, how she’s approaching her heroine’s social deficits, whether comparisons to “The Killing” (which was adapted by fellow “Cold Case” alum Veena Sud) are fair, and more.
How did you come to this? Were you aware of the original show before?
Meredith Stiehm: I was on “Homeland,” and Carolyn Bernstein from (production company) Shine had this property, “The Bridge,” which I didn't know about. And they sent it to me in advance and I watched a couple, and I was a little iffy about it. And then I was thinking about it and then Elwood (Reid), my friend from “Cold Case,” called me and he said, "I want to have lunch with you." And we're sitting at lunch and he's like, "There's this property swirling around it's called ‘The Bridge.’" And I was like, "Oh my God I know ‘The Bridge.’" And we had been talking for years about doing something together. So I sort of felt like I couldn't do a project and “Homeland” at the same time because I was full-time on “Homeland.” So for me it was perfect to do it together. So we made that happen. And (Shine) wanted to do Canada and so we sold them Mexico, but kind of late in the game.
I was going to ask about that, because you’ve got two possible borders you could have played with. And having not seen the original, I'm assuming that there is less of a culture clash between those two countries then there is between U.S. and Mexico. So I can see how Canada would be the closer analog.
Meredith Stiehm: Exactly. And visually it's cool and icy and wintery and if you're going to mimic the original, Canada/Detroit made sense. And that was sort of the idea that Shine America had going in. And I liked it and it was more Elwood who was like, "Do Mexico, do Mexico." Because one time I was thinking Niagara Falls, that's where the body could be, like in the water or something. And he liked that but then he asked, "That's a season or two but season 3, where's the conflict?" Basically there's not a lot of cultural or political conflict going on between Canada and U.S. So the “Homeland” guys were also like, "What are you crazy? Do Mexico." So I got very influenced by them and Elwood. We had some convincing to do because Shine had more of an idea of Canada. But they, to their credit, came around and we just changed the beauty of the winter and the cold and the ice turned into the desert and the sun and the grit of Texas/Mexico.
Is the killer in the original claiming to be making a political statement like your guy is?
Meredith Stiehm: Yes. And it's politics that are very Scandinavian and a lot about humanity and how we treat – it's just politics that America doesn't relate to very well.But there's a lot of politics on the (U.S.-Mexico) border that we do.
We're talking about that pretty much constantly now.
Meredith Stiehm: Yes. To me it sort of felt like what “Homeland” had done with the Middle East and terrorism and what was in the headlines and they dramatized it.
With “Homeland,” Alex (Gansa) took the idea (of the Israeli “Prisoners of War” series) as a jumping off point and went in a different direction. I know Veena with “The Killing” was fairly faithful to (the Danish original). How much are you following the original with what you doing here?
Meredith Stiehm: We are following a lot of the main storyline and a lot of the character relationship between the two detectives. My theory of adaptation is basically, take what's good and leave the rest. And in this case there's a lot that's good. And so we were very liberal about using it. And then necessarily because of the setting and everything else, you end up departing more and more 'cause your show just becomes it's own thing. But on “Homeland” I never even saw the original. That's how far we had made it our own. And here we still watch the original and talk about it a lot as a staff.
One of the things you took from it is Sonya and her having Asperger’s, which I don’t believe is mentioned overtly at any point in the three episodes I’ve seen.
Meredith Stiehm: No, no it's not. That's how it was in the original. And part of my reticence about the original was I didn't like the character at first. I'd only watched two and was like, “This woman is off-putting. I don't know.” And Elwood was like, "keep watching." And I sort of admired that they never labeled it. So we haven't either. The kids I know that are on the (autistic) spectrum are usually kids that are very well attended to and have gotten help and are at the right schools. And I think Sonya was not well taken care of as a kid. I think she was a neglected kid. No one defined it; nobody got her help. So I think the interesting thing about her is that she may be on the spectrum but she's never been diagnosed. And she's a grown woman who is living with it and coping with it.
Do her social deficits make you extra conscious then of making sure you illustrate the genius side of her to counter balance these moments where she's fumbling around and offending people?
Meredith Stiehm: I don't think we make an extra effort with that. I think we use it story wise when it's helpful. But I like to think that Sonya, kind of like Carrie in “Homeland,” is in her job because she's good to it and she has a deficit but we all have deficits. And she finds a way to do her work and be good at it and live with her deficit or her weaknesses the way we all do.