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Steven Van Zandt: Why I Went ‘Gangster-in-the Snow’ for Netflix’s ‘Lilyhammer’

Netflix aims to lure subscribers with eight episodes of the very Norwegian “Lilyhammer,” available for streaming on Monday

Early in "Lilyhammer," Netflix's eight-show original series that launches Monday, we meet Steven Van Zandt’s Frank "The Fixer" Tagliano.

The E-Street Bander and former "Sopranos" star plays a sometime New York mobster who sings on the bosses and is relocated by the FBI — at his own request, due to his fascination with the 1994 Lillehammer winter Olympic Games — to the rural Norwegian site of the title.

Consequently, all the other characters we meet early on are played by a cadre of skilled native actors, speaking mostly Norwegian — which Frank largely understands but can’t speak.

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Steven Van Zandt went gangster in the snow for Netflix's "Lilyhammer"

Van Zandt, who was lured into the cross-cultural project by its uniqueness, told TheWrap that he was impressed that Netflix bit on a series where much of the secondary characters’ dialogue was in the local tongue, with subtitles. 

"I even said to (Netflix content chief) Ted Sarandos, 'Ted, you don’t want this dubbed or something?’ And he said, ''No, I love it the way it is, it’s unique and it works.’"

“To have such a familiar character set in a story in such an unfamiliar place, says Sarandos, “made the show very intriguing for us.” In fact, a second season already has been green lighted, without awaiting the first run’s reception.

"Lilyhammer" — the misspelling is intentional — is the first of several original series to air that the rental giant hopes will bolster its streaming business. Unlike with network and cable shows, all the episodes are launching at once for instant streaming.

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Other Netflix original-content deals include the David Fincher-produced “House of Cards,” which will star Kevin Spacey in a two-season, 26-episode run, as well as new episodes of "Arrested Development" to air in 2013.

And the new venture isn't cheap: "Cards" will reportedly cost of up to $4 million per episode; "Development," up to $3 million.

Sarandos says the investment is part of an emerging strategy to keep and win subscribers with more original programming. “The more you watch them,” Sarandos told TheWrap, "the more you love the service. The more [subscribers] we retain, the more you tell your friends about it. Shows like this, when they’re done really well, lead to a lot of watching and a lot of consumer engagement.”

"Lilyhammer" was conceived by the husband-and-wife team of Anne Bjørnstad and Eilif Skodvin, and pitched to Van Zandt while he was in Bergen, Norway, producing a rock band for his own label.

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It wasn't lost on Van Zandt that some might find Frank to be perilously close to his much-loved consigliore character Silvio Dante to HBO's long-running "Sopranos."

"I had said, the last thing in the world I’m thinking of is playing a gangster again — I don’t even know if I’m gonna act ever again — but it was immediately fascinating to me. Sometimes an idea like that is absolutely magic. This was one instance where I said, 'I gotta try to do this.'"

The Norwegian pair flew to New York, and after a series of talks, with Van Zandt coming in as co-writer and producer as well as leading man. "We felt like it could work, as a real interesting experiment creatively," Van Zandt told TheWrap. "Ever since I began doing my solo records, I had started spending most of my time in Europe, and I love that cross-cultural thing.”

It was Van Zandt who insisted on keeping the settings and situations rigorously local.

“I told the other two writers, I’ve watched this happen twice in my lifetime — with Bruce Springsteen, and with ["Sopranos" creator ] David Chase — and the more eccentric and particular and detailed they are about things you wouldn’t think anybody outside of New Jersey would ever be interested in, that’s the stuff hat ends up being the  most relatable and most universal.

“So I said, I want to use that as the guide. Let’s find the most particular Norwegian things and locations we can, and — with our limited budget — have this guy interact and try to fit into this culture.”

At least locally, the plan seems to have worked. A day before speaking with TheWrap, Van Zandt learned that "Lilyhammer," which already has launched in Norway, had broken all records for audience in the country — 998,000 viewers, or one-fifth of the total population.

As for the release strategy in the U.S., it took some persuasion for Sarandos to convince Van Zandt of the worth of the strategy of offering all eight episodes at once.

“Some people, including Stevie, questioned the wisdom of putting it all up at once," Sarandos said. "We had a really intense conversation about it — he said, 'Wow, we just spent a year writing the show, six months shooting it, all these months in post, and you’re just gonna put it out there? All of it?' And I said, 'Stevie, its exactly what happens when you record an album with Bruce.'”

In fact, Van Zandt, who shot all but the first season of "The Sopranos" with the E-Streeters sporadically on tour, begins an extensive world tour with Springsteen in March. He says playing the old songs and the new Springsteen album he much admires “is like a vacation. My work starts when I come off the stage.” 

He also spent about a year consulting on the music for David Chase’s “small, personal” movie about a fledgling band back in New Jersey in the 1960s.

For now, he’s pleased to be partnered with Netflix on what he sees as a substantial reshuffle of the television content deck.

“I just think they’re getting ahead of everybody else," he told TheWrap. "There’s a whole bunch of new players coming into this market, it's going to truly expand, and these big digital players — the Googles, Apples and Facebooks of the world — are gonna be the new networks."

Sarandos likes the sound of that, and cites the company's buoyant numbers, despite last year's botched fees rejiggering that drained subscribers. But he knows it’s a tough field of play out there.

"In the fourth quarter of this last year, we streamed 2 billion hours of content to subscribers,” he said. “That’s rocket ship growth. The coming generation values access far more than ownership. All of us have to figure out how to monetize the change.”