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‘Fortitude’ Unlocks Arctic Secrets”

‘Fortitude’ Unlocks Arctic Secrets
An Arctic island with more polar bears than people shines as the setting of ‘Fortitude,’ a 12-part mystery series on cable-channel Pivot. A murder in Fortitude challenges Stanley Tucci, a detective, to unlock the secrets of the small town

The Wall Street Journal  – January 13, 2015

By Caryn James

Strange locations count for a lot in “Fortitude.” The 12-part mystery series is set on an island in an Arctic archipelago where polar bears outnumber people three to one and even children carry hunting rifles for protection. The small town of Fortitude is free of crime until a murder brings in Stanley Tucci. He plays an American working for the London police, who has to pry secrets out of tight-lipped locals, including Michael Gambon as a terminally ill photographer. The series’ location on television is even less likely. It will begin on Jan. 29 on Pivot, the year-and-a-half old basic-cable channel with socially relevant programming, targeted at millennials. It’s a channel many viewers may not even know they get.

With its town full of secrets and psychologically troubled characters, “Fortitude” has been called Nordic Noir, a genre that takes in the Danish version of “The Killing” and its American remake. But Simon Donald, its creator, main writer and executive producer, said, “Nordic Noirs are dark and rainswept. In ‘Fortitude’ there’s this explosive white daylight, a giant kick you get out of the land.” And other noirs aren’t haunted by bears. “Polar bears are an iconic part of the story,” Mr. Donald said. “They’re deadly dangerous, you don’t hear them coming before they eat you. That mirrors things in the story.”

The plot is set off when children find what might be a mammoth’s tooth under some thawing ice. That fascinates the environmental researcher played by Christopher Eccleston and may thwart the town’s plan to construct a hotel in a glacier. “Something coming out of the permafrost—it’s the story of things uncovering, a landscape that mirrors the psychological reality of the story,” said Mr. Donald, who created the British series “Low Winter Sun,” about an antihero cop. (Mr. Donald wasn’t involved in the short-lived American remake of “Low Winter Sun” on AMC.)

Mr. Tucci signed on when only a single episode had been written and his character, Detective Chief Inspector Morton, was still British. He said, “We toyed with the idea of an accent, but it didn’t seem necessary,” since the town is a mix of people from Norway, Denmark, Britain and Spain. Mr. Morton arrives as the efficient, guarded outsider. “His job takes him to this incestuous, remote world. They’re so tightly wound in that little community,” Mr. Tucci said. “It’s a Sisyphean task to get the simplest information, and that becomes his undoing.”

He and Mr. Gambon, the most recognizable names to American audiences, aren’t an obvious fit for the youth-skewing Pivot, which is full of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” reruns. The channel is owned by Participant Media, the company behind films including “An Inconvenient Truth.” Pivot’s highest-profile programs are “HITRECORD ON TV,” a crowdsourced variety show produced and hosted by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and its first original comedy series, “Please Like Me,” a critically praised Australian co-production with a 21-year old gay hero.

Aimed at a wide audience, “Fortitude” was produced by Sky in the U.K. with a substantial budget of around $40 million. Initially, the premium channel Starz was the U.S. co-producer. When it became clear that the series wouldn’t be ready to launch by fall 2014, Starz dropped out and Pivot came in. The channel reaches 47 million households and is available on major cable carriers and satellite, including Time Warner, Verizon, Direct TV and Dish. That’s more than the 22.5 million Starz reaches, but far less than an established basic-cable channel like AMC, with 100 million.

Kent Rees, Pivot’s general manager, said the series is a good fit because of its environmental theme. “The very premise, that you see something thawing out of the permafrost, touches on climate change,” he said. Pivot will capitalize on those themes on Participant’s companion website, Takepart.com, which encourages social engagement. For each episode of “Fortitude” there will be an online feature about a related scientific topic. Mr. Rees also hopes that the show’s dramatic quality will raise Pivot’s profile among creators with projects to pitch.

Given the tense off-kilter story, calling it science may seem like a stretch, though. Asked about that, Mr. Donald said. “It’s primarily but not exclusively a psychological thriller. The cross-fertilization of the psychological theme and the environmental theme are kind of important in the story.” He pointed to the way the location shoot echoed the climate-change theme. The interior scenes were shot in London. The exteriors were shot in eastern Iceland, which was so much warmer than expected, the producers had to fly in fake snow.