‘The Bridge’ producer Meredith Stiehm on translating Denmark/Sweden into U.S./Mexico

Senior Television Writer
07.08.13 34 Comments
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.

We”ve been through an era where TV drama has for the most part been dominated by male anti-heroes, on shows created and run by men. You’ve now done three straight shows with female leads, and I think people really responded to the idea that Carrie was damaged and difficult and prickly in the ways that a lot of these other male characters were. And now you got Sonya that way. Whether recently or back when you were running “Cold Case,” was it frustrating for you as a woman writer looking at the landscape and seeing all of this great material and all of this attention being focused largely on the men?
Meredith Stiehm: Yeah. I mean I’m naturally more interested in women characters. I think I write them better. And it started at “NYPD Blue.” I loved cop shows and I loved writing for that show but I always felt like I was really good at writing Russell and Kirkendall, but most of the characters were male. And I’m really interested in women in male dominated worlds. So when I did “Cold Case” it was just natural for me to make a female lead but I think actually at the time it was kind of unique. I think it’s really not now.
Yes. We’ve had “Damages” and “Homeland” and a lot of the Showtime dramedies, so it’s balancing out more now.
Meredith Stiehm: Yeah. But it was much more satisfying for me to write for a female lead. And then “Homeland” was funny because they didn’t have a female writer for the first four episodes. I came to it late. I wasn’t there at the very beginning. And Chip Johannessen called me, my friend from my early “90210” days, and he was like, “Hey, want to come write in the show? We need a female writer.” I was like, “Wow, they did a female lead with no female writer in the mix.” So it wasn’t so unique anymore, if you just have a female writer. But I do feel like I have an affinity for her more than the guy characters.
Well, this is me looking in from the outside and not knowing what’s actually happening, but I noted that you would often wind up with a really intense Brody-Carrie kind of episode like “The Weekend,” Henry (Bromell) would get the interrogation episode – everyone had a specialty. Was that actually what was going on?
Meredith Stiehm: That was deliberate. It was very deliberate. Alex Gansa was very much like, “You be the keeper of Carrie’s voice and character,” and I became the one to really study up on bipolar and I did seem to get the juicy Carrie character stuff, which I liked. And that’s what I’m best at. The actiony stuff, the “24” stuff, Chip is great at, Alex is great at, Howard (Gordon)’s great at and Henry was son of a spy. So he would do more of the gamesmanship of the spying and stuff like that. So we sort of did what we was best at.
So for that show you”re studying up on bipolar issues. For this one you’ve had to read up on Aspergers. How was doing that informed what you’ve been doing with the character in the show so far?
Meredith Stiehm: I mean I take it as a really big responsibility to portray it. You want to be honest and accurate. I knew a lot about bipolar and I’d studied up, I went to the symposium in Princeton on it and I did the same thing for autism. But I also I knew some people who were bipolar. Autism I didn’t know as much about.  So we have a guy named Alex Plank who is we met through Autism Speaks, and he has Aspergers. He met with the writers first and now he’s there for every scene that Diane does. And he’s sort of our constant companion when were writing the scenes or performing those scenes. And I think that’s really important, you know, to not exaggerate or make it up. So you got to study and see what’s real. Though I’ll tell you one thing they said at this Princeton symposium is that if you’ve met one person with autism you’ve met one person with autism.
Yup. It’s like a snowflake.
Meredith Stiehm: Yeah. I did not know that. That’s very interesting.
These sorts of questions now have to be asked because of “The Killing.” Does this particular case get wrapped in the first season? Is it something that continues for a while?
Meredith Stiehm: It wraps up before the season”s over.
Okay. And you have a design in mind for what you do next?
Meredith Stiehm: Oh yeah. And we hope to not just be a police show. That’s like one very strong strand of what we’re doing. But the border is so interesting and El Paso and Juárez are so different in that they’re so close that we feel like there’s all these other stories to tell. And we’re both just crazy about “The Wire.” And so our model in our minds of this is the way “The Wire” became about so many things in the city. It wasn’t just a cop show. And I don’t know if you know about the girls of Juárez, it’s a genocide, really. These girls have been missing and being found dead for years, decades. And something we say in the room a lot is what drugs are to Baltimore, the girls are to Juárez. It’s a chronic, horrible crime and a situation that we want to take on. And to us that’s really what our second season is going to be about but we’re going to start it now, The Girls of Juárez.

I don’t want to dwell on the comparisons with “The Killing” too much, but I feel like because of your common backgrounds and because of the origins of the shows and the structure, I’ve heard this a lot: “It’s a ‘Cold Case” writer adapting a Scandinavian mystery show. I’m not going to watch this.”
Meredith Stiehm: Well why? They’re watching “The Killing.”
Some people are, but there was a lot of dissatisfaction with that show after the first season and then towards the second. So there’s a certain sense of, “Oh another one of these…,” which isn”t fair, just because you have the same gender and worked on the same show for a while.
Meredith Stiehm: I mean I have not seen all of “The Killing.” Veenas’s my dear friend and I root for her. And it does sort of feel like it’s not thinking very deeply if it’s just “female writer from ‘Cold Case” does adaptation,” you know…
Sure. That’s why I’m asking.
Meredith Stiehm: I know. People will say that but I don’t even – that’s hard for me to even talk about “The Killing” because it’s her show and is her thing and I haven’t watched all of them. But I will say I think she was sort of unfairly trounced for that. I know there was like a promise (of resolution in the first season) but it seemed to get very personal and ugly about Veena. And I thought there was something really strange and wrong going on there. And I’m really glad she got another shot.
In the third episode, we find out that several of the characters who live in Juarez have jobs or go to school in El Paso. Are people constantly going back and forth in that way?
Meredith Stiehm: Well, no. Americans don’t go to Juárez hardly at all. Zillions of Juárez people go to El Paso every day. They go there to work, they go there to shop. But that’s what’s so weird about these cities is there’s this daily flow of a ton of traffic. But people do not go to Juárez, and they used to. Ten years ago, it was like you went there to shop, you went there to party, you went to a restaurant. I want to tell you a weird story you I might have already told you about one night going to Juárez. It was just something like when we went there, we heard that nobody in El Paso goes to Juárez. They told us not to. We went, walked across the bridge, went for a few hours.  Came back at like ten at night and I went first to Customs and they just said, “What were you doing in Juárez? What did you bring back from Juárez?” And then passed me through. Then Elwood came and the same guy said to him, “Why would you bring her to Juárez?” Like that’s how little white women go over this border where so many go the other way.
How did you get both Diane and Demian to do this?
Meredith Stiehm: I don’t know. We were totally thrilled. We wrote it with Diane in mind thinking impossible but why not.
Why with her in mind specifically?
Meredith Stiehm: Her name for some reason I think maybe John Landgraf brought it up, FX brought it up but it was a name we kept talking about. I just saw “Farewell, My Queen,” which is this French movie. Little-seen, I think, but I was incredibly taken by her in that. And she has this sort of remove about her that felt right for Sonya. And at the same time we’re kind of courting Demian, who we all saw in “A Better Life.” And again, “Movie star, will he do TV? We don’t know.” And as luck would have it they had a project together they were both excited about that fell apart. So when Diane signed on Demian was like, “Oh, I want to work with Diane.” And then he signed on and then I think we have a really deep bench. I think our cast is great and I think because the two of them were doing if it attracted all these great actors. And we got Annabeth (Gish), then we got to Ted Levine and we got Thomas Wright and we got Matthew Lillard and Adriana. All these people are like excellent so I feel like because we were blessed by Diane and Demian everyone else came to the party.
One of the things I’ve noticed on “Breaking Bad” and elsewhere, when they go south of the border, suddenly there’s the orange filter. A lot of shows have color-coded when they”re in a new country. You didn’t really seem to be doing that. It’s pretty clear when we’re in Juárez and when we’re not, but I”m curious what you wanted to do with the visual template of the show.
Meredith Stiehm: Well, I think that we fell down a little bit on that because we didn’t have a director/producer. We don’t have a director/producer. We were so luckily we had Gerardo Naranjo, who did the pilot and he was wonderful. But the pilot was mostly at night and it was mostly in El Paso. So we didn’t have a template for El Paso daytime. And so I think we’ve actually sort of struggled with that. And now that were having some repeat directors. We have Alex Zakrzewski. He’s coming back. And he is sort of becoming the visionary for that. But it’s a little late in the game to be honest. It’s not our strength at the moment.
Finally, I want to ask about the approach to Spanish. There are a bunch of times when we see Demian in Mexico with his family and he is still speaking English. And then other times it’s subtitled. And sometimes it flows back and forth in the same conversation. What sort of rules, if any, do you have about that?
Meredith Stiehm: The rules are what is honest or what’s accurate. What we’ve done with Demian is that his son speaks English to him. He’s got a 19-year-old son and Demian will go back and forth that way. But Demian and his wife speak Spanish.Which we believe is accurate; his son goes to school in El Paso, so he crosses every morning. The truth is from what I can tell from when I was there that most people are bilingual, at least the Spanish people. But it’s 80 percent Mexican population in El Paso. So they speak both. A lot of the white people speak English and there’s sort of this Spanglish mix that a lot of people speak.
But is there some level of concern about how much people are willing to read on screen?
Meredith Stiehm: Yes. But I feel like let’s be bold and let’s be accurate. And the worlds getting more international every day so let’s do the same.
But there’s no directive from Shine, from FX from anybody about it? The “Lost” guys talked all the about the grief they would get every time they would do a Korean episode.
Meredith Stiehm: Right. There was fear expressed. FX is quite empowering.   They express their opinions and views but they rarely mandate anything. So I felt, Elwood and I both felt like let’s be real, like people can read subtitles. Let’s push ’em a little.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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