The director’s personal film starring Stellan Skarsgård and Andrea Bræin Hovig, was released on Norwegian screens on Friday by SF Studios.
A nine-year gap separates Sødahl’s breakthrough feature debut Limbo and her sophomore film Hope, a sensitive and honest drama based on the Norwegian writer/director’s own experience.
Set between Christmas and New Year, we follow Anja (43) and her husband Tomas (59), parents of six biological and stepchildren, as they try to deal with the bombshell news that she has a brain cancer and only three months to live. While Anja goes through an emotional turmoil and her treatment starts to affect her physical state, the couple’s relationship is put to the test.
The film was produced by Motly’s Thomas Robsahm, in association with Oslo Pictures, in co-production with Zentropa Sweden, Film i Väst, support among others from Nordisk Film & TV Fond. TrustNordisk handles sales.
Telling a story about cancer is challenging in itself, but a story about your own experience with cancer is all the more challenging. What made you do it in the first instance and how difficult was it for you to come back to filmmaking after a nine-year break?
Maria Sødahl: In a way it’s a film made against my own will. When I was told that I could prepare to live again, after being initially diagnosed with terminal brain cancer nine years ago, it still took me years to get better.
Four years later, I was contacted by a Danish producer to make an international film in Stockholm with an American actress. I said: “haven’t you heard what happened to me?” The producer said: “Yes…But I believe you’re fine now”. I said…”no I’m not fine…yet”. But that awoke in me a great lust to be able to go back to work.
I had some development money from the Norwegian Film Institute that had been frozen while I was sick, so I used it to start writing again. Friends encouraged me: “You should tell your own story,” they said. At the beginning I did not want to, I was against the idea of doing a kind of self-therapy, way too self-centred . But I eventually did! I had to find an ethical way to develop this project and get a carte blanche from my closest family and friends. It was crucial to me that it became a personal and not a private story.”
The film takes place over 11 days, during Christmas and New Year, and so much happens during that time: cancer diagnosis and first treatment, Christmas, wedding, brain surgery on January 2 - was all this the way it happened in reality?
MS: Absolutely. The whole medical story, Christmas, marriage, birthday etc was the way it happened, and all emotions were pretty much the way they were experienced. I had to remain close to reality and not censure my own experience to capture the rawness of the emotions. Besides, reality in this case had an almost too potent plot!
It must have been crucial for you to get your family and friends’ points of view and recollections of how things unfolded…
MS: At the beginning of the film I do say: “this is my story as I remember it. “
My husband did read all the drafts and helped me gather some facts together, and he respected the fact that in the film everything is seen through Anja’s point of view. As for the children, I had one-to-one ‘meetings’ with them. We discussed particular moments in the film and how they remembered my own behaviour. It was quite extraordinary to see how each one of them had different recollections of events.
Would you say that the core of the film is Anja and Tomas’s relationship, how their love is put to test and eventually blooms?
MS: This was my full intention. The story starts out as a cancer story which becomes a love story. The main characters at the beginning are not aware that they are part of their love story. Suddenly, they are a couple fighting together against cancer; they get to know each other again and their love gets a second chance.
I’m fascinated as well by the figure of Anja - how difficult it is for her to ask Tomas for help. She aims to be self-sufficient in the relationship and in the family. But eventually this is a bad idea. We are alone by nature, but I believe that one can only experience true love by accepting being mutually dependant of one another – anything else seems destructive and meaningless.
Was finding the right tone, not to make the film too melodramatic, one of the biggest challenges?
MS: My goal from the very beginning, was not to make a sentimental film as I am not sentimental. I wanted to make a film that wasn’t too brainy but physically exhausting, to reflect Anja’s emotional turmoil and mood swings as she is on steroids.
Unlike my first film Limbo which had little dialogue, as my main character had difficulty expressing her feelings, here, Anja has literally verbal diarrhoea. As she knows she is going to die, she lets go of her inner feelings and frustrations, there is no filter to what she says.
This contrasts with Tomas’ phlegm and builds tension and suspense. You wonder how he will react to her provocations. Also, to avoid melodrama I hardly used any score music. Our tracks are all source music, apart from the sound design.
When you wrote the script did you have Andrea Braein Hovig and Stellan Skarsgård in mind? What did you do to distance yourself and your own husband Hans Petter Moland from the characters of Anja and Tomas and then let Andrea and Stellan take control of their characters?
MS: I introduced small but important differences. For instance, there is a 20-year gap between Anja and Tomas, but only 10 between my husband and I, then my husband and I are both filmmakers, but in the film, Tomas is a theatre director, and Anja a choreographer. I wanted her to have a profession where her body is her working tool. And as where her enemy, the cancer, is within her own body. I knew from an early stage that I wanted Stellan in the role of Tomas. Besides being a wonderful actor, in real life he has experienced similar situations to his character: he has many children from different marriages, he knows what it means to be in a ‘bonus’ family, and has dealt with cancer in his family. He is not sentimental.
A bit absurd, I chose Stellan long before I started casting the story's main character and female lead. I cast 15 actresses between 40-50. I simply wanted to find the best actress, and there was Andrea! So perfect for her part. In the film she is in every frame. She has the ability to be both extravert and introvert, and her fascinating appearance made every new take different and interesting. And not without importance, both Andrea and Stellan possess an indispensable sense of black humour.
How did Andrea and Stellan prepare for their parts and how was your collaboration?
MS: The most important for them was not to portray me or my husband, and they did a brilliant job in reclaiming the characters as their own. Andrea had a whole summer to prepare. At the beginning she was afraid that as the story was something I had experienced, I would be critical, interventionist. But that was never the case. The script was very detailed. There was little space for improvisation. We did not rehearse because none of us enjoy rehearsals. But we had ten days where we talked a lot before filming.
There are many doctors and a wide range of medical staff. Can you tell us how you cast them?
MS: There are 17 health professionals in the film, and all of them are real doctors, nurses, scientists, radiographers etc. When we started casting, we searched everywhere in Oslo. We had up to 200 people from the medical profession who wanted to take part. The mix of professional actors - Stellan and Andrea - and non-professionals, gave a new energy to the scenes.
Can you explain your aesthetic choices, and in particular your collaboration with your DP Manual Alberto Claro?
MS: Manuel and I had worked together on Limbo. He is very much a handheld DP, but not shaky handheld. His images breathe. He works very closely to the actors, almost dancing besides them, being part of the scene himself.
The heart of the movie is the apartment, where the family lives. It was actually entirely built in a 350 square meters studio in Trollhättan. We wanted every room to have its story, a sense of people’s lives. It had to be rich. We starting thinking about mess. What is good or bad mess, how is life in the mess.
Regarding the lights and colour scheme, it would have been too easy to make the apartment warm and hospitals cold. We wanted the colours to be determined by the temperature of the characters. The exteriors are obviously cold and dark, but it’s still a warm darkness as it’s Christmas time. I was also happy that it wasn’t a white Christmas. I wanted rain, not to romanticise Christmas. The romance is not in the visual but between people.
What would you like people to feel when coming out of the movie?
MS: I hope it will resonate in people, make them experience strong emotions and perhaps look at their own life and choices. One of the important themes as well in the film is the concept of modern families. With step children, we are so eager not to let them be the victims of our adult choices, so we do a lot to accommodate this forced family constellation. But when it’s a question of life and death, the façade suddenly falls apart. A lot of people in ‘bonus’ families experience the difficulty of parenting biological vs stepchildren, but it’s a huge taboo.
What’s next for you?
MS: I’m looking forward to writing again and have different ideas. One project, with the working title Man Watching, is about being in your early 20s and searching for your identity, when naiveté and overweening confidence dominates.
I will explore this idea through a young European girl ́s ‘educational journey’ to Mexico. The idea came about by reflecting on how young people move around today in a globalised world, compared to my own experience as a traveller in the mid-eighties. I always subscribed to the idea, and the importance of ‘going out there’, both to get to know your own roots and in order to find out who you are.