Q&A with Alexander Eik, creator/co-writer of ‘Atlantic Crossing’ premiering Sunday on PBS Masterpiece

Sofia Helin and Kyle MacLachlan star in Atlantic Crossing on PBS. Photo courtesy: Beta Films / PBS Masterpiece

Based on the World War II relationship of Franklin D. Roosevelt (the 32nd President of the United States) and Norwegian Crown Princess Märtha, Atlantic Crossing tells the riveting and relatively unknown true story of Crown Princess Märtha, who became an influential figure in world politics during World War II, after Norway was occupied by Nazi Germany in 1940. Premiering Sunday at 9pET/8pCT as part of PBS’ Masterpiece series, the series follows her journey from Norway to the White House where she was given refuge and became close to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In advance of Sunday’s premiere, Tellyspotting had the great good fortune to sit down with Alexander Eik, Norwegian film and TV series Director and creator and co-writer/co-director of Atlantic Crossing, to fully get a sense as to what it took to bring this series from an idea in the mind palace of Eik to the premiere on PBS as part of the Masterpiece series. Given we are talking about 7+ years out of the lives of Eik and all others involved with the series from idea to premiere he was, understandably, somewhere between being cautiously optimistic and over-the-top excited about Sunday’s long-awaited premiere.

A brief word of warning as you begin digging into the interview…it’s long, but long for all the right reasons. It was so enjoyable to a point where Eik’s enthusiasm about the series was nothing short of infectious to where I am SO rooting for the series to be a success with both critics and audience alike. Watch the trailer, enjoy the interview then tune in on Sunday to PBS Masterpiece and Atlantic Crossing! Cheers!

Tellyspotting: With the series getting ready to premiere this coming Sunday on PBS, I was doing a little bit of research with regards to the response to Atlantic Crossing when it ran in Norway. I almost got the feeling that the critics that had issues with it were treating this more like a documentary than a drama, even though it’s based on true story and it mentions at the top of every episode that the story was ‘inspired by true events’. Can you briefly speak to the criticism and then talk about the series and the relationship between these two individuals, which is amazing.

Alexander Eik: True, Atlantic Crossing was met with some debate when we launched here in Norway. I think there will always be a debate on historical accuracy when launching an historical drama. So I guess in that way, this is business as usual.

Historians are very often concerned about the details and some can be quick to judge so there will always be a conflict between historians and storytellers when it comes to historical dramas. In the case of Atlantic Crossing it’s clearly promoted as fictionalized drama inspired by historical events and it’s not a documentary.

The debate in Norway has been mainly concerned about whether or not Crown Princess Martha had influence on President Roosevelt’s decision to help the Allies by implementing the Lend Lease Act. This Act provided a way for Roosevelt to work around America’s Neutrality Act.

This was at a time when America wasn’t a part of the European war, it was before Pearl Harbor. But in our research that spanned almost seven years, we have found solid documentation that shows that it is more than likely that Martha had a part in Roosevelt’s decision-making on the Lend Lease Act. We, of course, do not give her credit for giving birth to the idea, but we think she’s one of several people around the President at the time who influenced him. For that reason, we have labeled our series as being inspired by true events in order to guide the viewers in their interpretation of the depicted events and characters.

Tellyspotting: Given that it was inspired by true events, in the initial creation and subsequent writing of the series, did you find it easier or harder to write the script when you actually had a framework of something to work from? Does it limit you’re writing it and creating it as opposed to an entire piece of fiction where you have free rein is to take it anywhere.

Alexander Eik: In the case of Atlantic Crossing, I would say it was definitely more difficult because one of our main challenges writing this story is that Crown Princess Martha was a very shy, very private person and she didn’t thrive in the spotlight.

Historians have, up until now, been mainly preoccupied with the story of men, when it comes to the Second World War. So, there have been many books written about her husband Crown Prince Olav who later became King Olav and hjs father, King Haakon VII, who’s also a part of this series, but very little has been written about Crown Princess Martha.

So, the challenge to my co-writer Linda May Kallestein and I was to find enough information to come close enough as storytellers to tell her story, which is the main reason why it’s took us almost seven years to research the story.

Tellyspotting: You talk about the fact that it’s a World War II story that’s somewhat told from a female perspective which you don’t get in a normal basis, but it was also a story of an individual that found herself thrown into the political arena. When you think of the time, you didn’t have women in politics or in the political arena so it’s a fascinating story not only of Martha but shows an interesting side of FDR, a side that many don’t really know about.

Alexander Eik: Before the war, Crown Princess Martha was just that, a Crown Princess in Norway. The only expectations she met as a Crown Princess was to give birth to an heir and that she had already done. She didn’t really regard herself as a political person at all. And then, the Nazis attack Norway and they occupied Norway and the Royal Family split apart, and suddenly she finds herself exiled in America with her three children, while her husband is in London with the King and the government.

She immediately gets invited by President Roosevelt to come stay at the White House as his private guest with the children. So she actually lived in the White House the first weeks of her stay in America and he helps her find a home in Washington not far from the White House. And then, of course, her close contact with the president was quickly recognized by the Norwegian government as a unique possibility to promote Norwegian interests towards the American President.  

The Norwegian government regarded Crown Princess Martha as their Trojan horse in the White House and made sure she was given all the necessary information about the war situation in order to discuss important political matters with Roosevelt whenever she had the opportunity. And our research shows that she very often had that opportunity because during the length of the war she was the one person he spent most time with except for his advisors during the whole length of the war. So, she did have that opportunity to influence him.

She was actually instructed to do so by Norwegian authorities and for these efforts she received acknowledgement in her own lifetime. In 1942, she was awarded the highest medal in the St Olav’s order by the Norwegian King for her outstanding efforts for Norway and humanity.

And of course the fact that the Crown Princess was the one who officially accepted the warship that America gave to Norway on behalf of the Norwegian cabinets. These are testimonies that her efforts for Norway were of immense importance.

Sofia Helin and Kyle MacLachlan star in Atlantic Crossing on PBS. Photo courtesy: Beta Films / PBS Masterpiece

Tellyspotting: When we think of FDR in America, some put him alongside of what people think about Lincoln, Washington and Kennedy. In your exhaustive research, was there anything that surprised you about FDR that you didn’t know about the President, maybe something that, as Americans, we wouldn’t know by just reading what has been written about FDR. Did you know much about FDR?

Alexander Eik: Being Norwegian, only what I’ve been taught in school and what I’ve read of personal interests. But I agree, I think Roosevelt stands tall amongst the greatest American presidents, alongside Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. I think his political legacy cannot be overestimated.

You’re asking me if I find something surprising about FDR and actually what I really found was the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. I didn’t know much about her, to be honest. During my research, I realized what a great asset she was to President Roosevelt. In fact, I regard her as half of the presidency because he was, of course, linked to his wheelchair and he wasn’t as mobile as she was.

She could travel and move around to a greater degree than he could. And, as a first lady, I think she stands above anyone else before and after highly intelligence workaholics. She totally dedicated herself to her political work and I came to realize just how important she was to his presidency. You can’t really think off him without her. I think they were very closely linked.

Tellyspotting: You may think of this as an apples and oranges comparison to two series that you may not be aware of that are decades ago British comedies, Yes Minister and Good Neighbors. To think that they were both done 40+ years ago and yet how very timely and relevant they still are today. You think of the story of Atlantic Crossing and how surprisingly or scarily took place now eighty years ago. But, it could be a story that plays out in present day given the times and what’s going on in the world today.

Alexander Eik: Absolutely, I think you’re right about that. We are seeing today many similarities between the pre-war era, and what’s going on today, and I think many of the events that you will see in Atlantic Crossing resonates with current events, how the US public at the time, back in end of the 1930s, they were advocating isolationism, how the world was influenced by totalitarianism with a growing public discontent and economic decline, political polarization etc.

All of this makes Atlantic Crossing very relevant, sadly so I would say. I think it’s important to remind people what the presidency used to represent and its influence in world politics. Hopefully, we’ll avoid doing the same mistakes that we did back in the late 30s and early 40s, and that we can learn from history and learn from our pasts.

Tellyspotting: Looking to the concept of story of Atlantic Crossing being inspired by true events, when you begin the actual creation of Atlantic Crossing and the writing of the series, and you look at those times that you’re fictionalizing things to whatever extent, are they generally big chunks of time or do you use that as a way to bridge between real events and conversations of what you uncovered during research? I guess when you began planning of the series knowing you are writing a series that’s inspired by true story, how do you personally use those times that you’re fictionalizing things.

Alexander Eik: Writing fictional drama inspired by true events or that is based on true stories is always a delicate balancing act between staying true to history and, at the same time, creating a compelling dramatization. Not least remaining respectful to the subjects, many of whom are still alive today, but the main challenge, writing Atlantic Crossing was to imagine what went on behind closed doors.

And also it was hard for us to get a sense of who Martha was as a person behind the royal façade. Mostly, in history, she is only mentioned briefly as a side character and we had to approach the writing process as detectives laying out this big puzzle trying to find her as a character and try to depict her as a human person.

My co-writer, Linda May Kallestein and I, we did our best to achieve historical credibility. We spent almost seven years researching this story using as many historical correct events as possible. Some are very true to the actual events, others are more loosely inspired by these because when you try to compress five years of war history into an 8-hour drama, you have to make some hard choices.

The overall story of Atlantic Crossing is true, that Crown Princess Martha had a very close relationship with President Roosevelt and that she made a significant effort to help Norway and the allies during the war, that is a documented fact.

Tellyspotting: Aside from the interest in the story and the skilled writing that came from the exhaustive research, the cast that you were able to assemble together with Sofia Helin and Kyle MacLachlan must have been such a wonderful asset from the beginning as it is fascinating to watch them both become these characters on the screen. Talk a bit to the ability to cast Sofia and Kyle and what that meant to the series from the beginning.

Alexander Eik: Sofia Helen was my first choice. She came early in my mind as I was writing the story.  I’m a big fan The Bridge and of her character in that series. Saga Noren is probably the diametrical opposite of Crown Princess Martha.

Watching an interview with Sofia on Norwegian television, it just struck me you know her charisma and her personal warmth and then with Martha’s empathy and ability to recognize other human beings, regardless of their status, were the core human qualities I was looking for in an actress.

I was thrilled when Sofia accepted the part. This was a full year before shooting started. It gave her an opportunity to do your own research and she even learned to speak Norwegian because Crown Princess Martha was Swedish, as Sofia is, but she learned to speak Norwegian when she moved to Norway. I was very impressed by her stamina and her ability to switch between Swedish and Norwegian and English and I think she is a true character actress. 

Regarding the actor who would play Roosevelt, I really had no clue who to approach. Luckily, we had the casting agent Avy Kaufman on board quite early. She told us we should trust the quality of the script and the aim high. So, we approached Kyle MacLachlan, although I had my doubts about the chances of getting him on board because of an actor of this caliber in a Norwegian production, it doesn’t happen too often. To my surprise and to my joy, he accepted the role.

But then the negotiation process with his agent dragged out and I have to admit I became a bit concerned that Kyle wouldn’t have enough time to prepare. But when we eventually got the final yes from his agent, Kyle came to Prague where we shot most of the series and I was quite surprised that he came as prepared as I could ever hope for.

During our first dinner together in Prague, Kyle told me that he had been preparing for the part almost since he first got the offer. So we hit the ground running and it was such a pleasure to work with this distinguished actor and see him shaping the character of Franklin Roosevelt, doing this complete transformation both mentally and physically.

Tellyspotting: It’s has to be fun for you as the creator/writer of the series to see that come alive on the screen.

Alexander Eik: Very much so, yes.

Tellyspotting: It’s probably safe to say this is a little bit of a departure from the things you’ve done in the past and as I mentioned earlier, Atlantic Crossing premieres Sunday on Masterpiece of PBS here in the US. Are you excited about the premiere after 7+ years of dealing with the creation, the research, the writing, the casting and the physical production of the series?

Alexander Eik: Absolutely! To my knowledge, this is the first Scandinavian series ever to be screened as part of the PBS Masterpiece series and so of course it’s a great honor to be a part of that and to see that this series will now reach such a large audience in America.

It’s a dream come true and it’s more than I could have ever hoped for. Getting a series that has been financed and produced out of Norway, this is more than one could expect and even hope and dream for so I’m very delighted. I’m very excited. I’m also very eager to see how it will be received by the audience in America.

Tellyspotting: And, finally, as I’m learning the phrase Nordic Noir, if you were to be able to suggest one series that should be required viewing, what would that be?

Alexander Eik: I would highly recommend a series called Wisting (Norwegian police procedural) which is produced by my company, CineNord, and it was acquired by BBC and it’s based on a series of books by Jørn Lier Horst, a very successful Norwegian crime thriller writer, the second biggest we have after Jo Nesbø. It’s a true Nordic Noir. A very suspenseful thriller set in the snowy landscapes of rural Norway.

Tellyspotting: It’s interesting that when a lot of production around the world was shut down for the last year or so, the appetite for international drams in their own language has steadily increased. That’s been the most exciting thing about 2020 is that it’s opening our ability to broadcast things that we normally would never have seen. I think The Bridge, obviously did this early on but series like that became more popular as they were remade in English as opposed to when they first appeared in their original language.

Alexander Eik: I agree it’s been a very interesting development, I would rather say perhaps evolution of the media that we now see how foreign language series are getting a foothold also in English speaking territories. Of course, it opens up these huge markets to these productions that would previously not have been discovered and enjoyed by American or British audiences.

This is also due to the fact that one of the main drivers has been steadily increase of quality that you will find in foreign language productions. We see also higher budgets with Atlantic crossing which is probably the biggest series ever to come out of Scandinavia, it would not have been possible to finance Atlantic Crossing 10 or 15 years ago, but now we’re seeing a change in that and I strongly believe that the series will actually be some international audience so I think it’s very exciting times, both for the audiences and for us behind the camera.

Tellyspotting: Like you, I look forward to good things for Atlantic Crossing beginning Sunday. I think the fact that it’s such a little known story and that it’s a true story is going to bring viewers who love documentaries and love dramas. So, congratulations.

Alexander Eik: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me and take care.

Atlantic Crossing premieres Sunday, April 4 at 9pET/8pCT on PBS Masterpiece.


In: Drama