Frelle Petersen’s unique naturalistic filmmaking style earned him multiple awards for Uncle, his first feature in his Jutland set trilogy, including the main prize in Tokyo in 2019 and a nomination for the Nordic Council Film Prize 2020.
His second feature in the Jutland trilogy, the drama Forever (Resten af livet), has scored at home with rave reviews and over 88,000 tickets sold since July 7.
It will screen in the main competition programme of the San Sebastian Film Festival (September 16-24).
Starring Jette Søndergaard (Robert nominated for Uncle) as well as Lasse Lorenzen, Mette Munk Plum and Ole Sørensen, Forever is the complex portrait of a family, challenged by loss and the conflicts that each of the family members must face.
Petersen has captured with much sensitivity the family’s grieving process, and efforts to go back to everyday life, working alongside multi-awarded cinematographer Jørgen Johansson (The Vanishing, Italian for Beginners, Borgen).
The film was produced by Zentropa’s Jonas Bagger, with support among others from Nordisk Film & TV Fond. TrustNordisk handles sales.
We spoke to the director.
Forever has been watched by over 88,000 Danes so far, and it’s selected for San Sebastian-How do you feel about that great response, both from the industry and the general audience?
Frelle Petersen: Yes it’s really amazing to experience people’s reactions.
Reviewers find different meanings to my stories and I learn a lot about my own movies by reading them, and it’s great that so many people have watched it in cinemas.
It is an important story for me - grief and what it does to a family. At various Q&As around the country, people have shared their own stories. Some feel they have been listened to, as it’s their voice that comes from this film, which is very naturalistic.
Grief is indeed portrayed with delicate strokes, as each member of the family reacts differently to his/her loss. Did you do research around grief, or it is something you've experienced yourself and expanded from there?
FP: The initial idea came in 2019, when I spoke to a family who had lost their son whom I knew. I asked them how they were managing to help one another, and find a common ground in their grieving process. The mother was pleased to speak to me, and even surprised, as few people had dared to discuss it with them. I started being interested in the family’s experience, which was both devastating and life-affirming, as after a full year of grieving, they had gone through a personal journey, and tried to come back to everyday life.
Then I started contacting grief focus groups. After much research, I decided I would portray the people left behind, the individuals’ grieving process and what it does to a family.
The person who dies, is not actually portrayed in the first part of the film, which suddenly switches from the daily routine of a family of 4 to a family of 3. Why this narrative choice?
FP: I didn’t want to describe a specific death, but time passing, by watching nature, empty rooms. I told my producer [Jonas Bagger] and the Danish Film Institute I really wanted to make an experiment in the first part of the film, not to make it too dramatic, but let the audience get to know the family by being an observer, and experiencing the family dynamics. The film is actually a portrait of emptiness, the void that comes with death.
Authenticity is at the core here, with the setting, the actors, the dialect from Jutland-do you feel that rural life in general is under-represented on screens?
FP: The topic of representation is interesting. There are many discussions today about what we need to do to enhance this. For me, the most important Is having a good story that people can relate to, not necessarily political. Personally, I come from Southern Jutland. I have lived there most of my life and this is part of me, although I’ve moved to Copenhagen. I try to tell a universal story but anchored in my own background.
The routine of daily life is very important in a rural setting, as time often seems to have no hold on it. How did you work with actors to make each gesture natural in their repetitiveness?
FP: A lot of that happens in the script as I write very specifically. I spend a lot of time writing the lines so that they are as natural as possible and I ask actors to play it down. Also, before shooting, I discuss the parts with the actors, in each scene. And when we shoot, I want to see physically what they do, to then adjust, if necessary. They know authenticity means a lot to me, so if something feels unnatural, they say it out loud.
I do all casting sessions with my casting agent, even for the minor parts. I like to have several actors do casting at once so it’s not just one actor coming in and being nervous. I also speak to the actors on the phone ahead of casting, to get rid of this nervousness, often connected to casting.
There is usually one scripted scene, but also a lot of improvisation. My casting sessions usually last a minimum of 2 hours. This is where I find out if the actors can relax in my naturalistic approach and see if there is a true dynamic happening between them.
They usually say I’m afraid of not doing enough…but then I tell them you do enough just by sitting there, by just eating breakfast-you don’t have to show me anything-you are covered by the framing. I also tell them a bit about my editing, how I portray a feeling in the editing and not by the acting itself.
Tell us about your visual style and how you collaborated with DoP Jørgen Johansson?
FP: I really wanted to work with Jørgen. He is one of our most gifted cinematographers. I love his work on Italian for Beginners and The Vanishing in particular, that have a naturalistic feel.
Those movies are very well written and directed, but a lot comes also from the cinematographer. With Jørgen, we discussed the observer’ perspective, what was need for each scene, and as an editor as well, I would explain how I imagined it. This was helpful to construct the framings.
Jørgen has experienced that on a film or TV show, most often you do classic coverage, with a master-shot to tell people where you are. Then you go closer to the characters in the frame, you get them to talk and interact, you have a cross cut, with one speaking, the other responding, and you have a check list of things.
We didn’t want to do that. We just wanted to have the basic framing to tell the story in each scene, spend the right amount of time with the actors, for them to have the space to move in. I don’t necessarily cut to close-ups because I like to have the audience explore the environment as well. When I cut and cross cut, I make a lot of decisions on behalf of the audience, for them to be the observer in the master-shot. So perhaps it’s important for them to look at the breakfast table, people not talking. I kind of give the audience the opportunity to cut by themselves what they want to focus on or not.
What’s next? The third part of this trilogy set in Jutland?
FP: I’m starting to research my new topic. I can’t say what it’s about. That said, with Uncle, I spent four months working in a farm to get the whole idea of working as a farmer. This time, I will do something that I’m looking forward to doing, dreading at the same time. It’s something that a lot of people can relate to. It will be a tough environment, linked to the health care system. I’m already thinking of ideas, discussing the look and feel with Jørgen and my production designer. A lot of pieces are coming together nicely!
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