It’s almost exactly a year since Norwegian writer/director Eskil Vogt‘s directorial debut, “Blind” (he previously had been co-writer on both of Joachim Trier‘s feature films), won the screenwriting prize in the World Dramatic strand at Sundance, and rode a wave of buzz unusual for a film from that section all the way to another prize in Berlin, subsequent festival screenings, and to distribution deals in territories around the globe. Despite the sheer love with which it has been received everywhere it’s played (by us too: here’s our A-grade review from Berlin, and Oli put it on his Best Films of 2014 list) and its Sundance stamp of approval, a deal for the U.S. has yet to materialize. “The sales company always tell me ‘we’re this close to making the deal'” said Vogt a little ruefully when we met him last week at the Göteborg International Film Festival, “but they’re holding out a bit.”
Meanwhile, “Blind” continues to crop up at festivals, Vogt is at work on his next directorial screenplay, and Trier is finishing up work on their latest collaboration, the English-language “Louder Than Bombs,” starring Jesse Eisenberg, Amy Ryan, Isabelle Huppert, Gabriel Byrne, and David Strathairn, which came in at number 26 on our 100 Most Anticipated Films of 2015 list. We talked about all of this and more during our very pleasant interview, which was only interrupted once by a sudden, hilarious blast of Cher‘s “Believe” in the otherwise silent bar (Vogt: “I haven’t heard this since the ’90s!”).
“Blind” was your first directorial feature, but not your first film. Tell me about moving from shorts to full-length films.
I actually went to film school as a director and, as you say, made short films. And I’d been trying to finance a feature for a long time, so I thought I knew what it was. But really, just the length of it surprised me — it was like sprinting a marathon. It was exhausting. Especially when you are on a low budget, you have no margin of error so you just work all the time, no sleep. My kid was two at the time and started calling me Eskil and not Dad.
Oh dear, so after the next one he’ll be calling you “Mr. Vogt,” perhaps?
Ha! Well, he’s back to Dad now, so hopefully not.
So how about these other features you were trying to finance? They’re still somewhere in a drawer?
Hm, I had this script I’d been trying to make for many years. But when I took it out of the drawer I felt I’d moved a little bit on. I think it would have made a great movie if I could have made it back then, but you move on.
Was there anything specific you got from shooting “Blind” that made you feel like you’d outgrown it?
“Blind” made me more aware of, how do you say, it’s a very complex female character. Which I found very interesting to explore and I put a lot of myself into that character. And when I went back to the old script, which was from a man’s point of view, there is a woman who is very important, but she felt very underdeveloped to me. And I wasn’t satisfied with the movie’s perspective on her because she was sort of the enigma of the film and I felt I didn’t get in deep enough. It would have worked in the film because it’s constructed that way, but it felt for me not good enough any more.
I can see why. Ingrid in “Blind” is such a terrifically rounded character. It’s seldom we see women drawn so unpatronizingly, and with such a vivid interior life.
I didn’t know that people would really respond to that — I just made it and then afterwards, people, especially women were saying “It’s so great to show a woman who has dirty sexual thoughts, I’ve never seen that.” And I was surprised. “You’ve never seen that?” And then I started thinking about it and realized it’s true, you very rarely see that part of women. Which is just… weird.
It is weird. And annoying. And unrealistic. But tell me about teaming up with “Dogtooth” DP Thimios Bakatakis — the visuals are so key.
I didn’t have a DP I was working with regularly. So I was just… aiming. I sent [the script] out to Thimios’ agent, and I didn’t hear anything back. So I started looking for other people — using his films as reference — and then suddenly he called me and said “I’d love to do this, when can I come to Oslo?”
What he thought was interesting was he usually gets his jobs because people see his striking eye for composition, because he’s so good at that, and “Dogtooth” is an extreme example of that. But what I thought was really right for my film is the way he uses light because it’s so simple and natural and neutral and white — there’s no artifice in the lighting. That helped me get into “Dogtooth” and “Attenberg,” because even when the weirdest thing happens, it happens in my world, the way I see it: I believe more in what’s happening because of the way it’s shot.
So almost everything was shot with natural light or the practical light sources you see on the screen. He took so many risks! One of the key things was that she doesn’t need electrical light, she can sit in an apartment that gets darker and darker and darker and she doesn’t see it. And then her husband comes home and turns on the electric light and that contrast… that became key.
And with natural light you get those happy accidents — the light will change during a take. One of the great things about having a blind protagonist is that people become very aware of the sensuousness of everything. Suddenly when she touches something you feel that touch because you are thinking about what she experiences, and also then when you see a change of light that you might not have noticed otherwise, it’s almost more touching because you know she is not seeing this.
So when the light in the room changes, in a way it’s heartbreaking to me.
That’s very true, as is the sad quality where you use shallow depth of focus so that only one part of an object is sharp and the rest falls away. Which calls to mind her line about trying to remember the whole of something by concentrating on the details.
That’s definitely one of the things we talked about, how to limit visual information. Because everything we see in the movie is connected to her consciousness. That’s also the reason that we sometimes we would empty the room of everything. Sometimes it’s just a white space around her and maybe the chair that she’s going to sit down on because she’s is concentrating on that. And maybe when she sits down there’s things in the window that weren’t there the shot before. And that might seem to be continuity problems, in fact [the woman in charge of continuity] was very annoyed with us: “I’ll never work again!” But the depth of field kept that subtle, you felt it, but you didn’t go “Aha! That’s clever!” or “That’s wrong!”
So yes, shallow depth of field and sometimes just eliminating things from the frame. And not being afraid because sometimes you feel that fear as a director, you want people to believe in stuff, so you tend to clutter it up… putting a lot of stuff in everywhere so it feels lived-in. And we went the opposite way to create a very specific effect.
The editing too, by Jens Christian Fodstadt, is remarkable. Was that a rhythm you wrote or one you found in the edit bay?
I had a lot of sequences that were very thought-out and “pre-edited” in a way. But what I found was I had written the script quite quickly and it was a very joyous process — I felt like I had so many ideas, I felt like it all came together very easily even though it’s quite a complex structure. And then the shoot was quite difficult. And when we came into editing we felt that, well the material is here but it doesn’t have that energy of the script. And me and the editor we spent a lot of time just trying to find that again. To reinvent that spark that the script had.
People tell me, as a screenwriter, the script is so, so overlooked in the importance of making a film. And I always say, you know we’re not that overlooked when you look at editing!
With first edits usually it’s too long and that was the case here as well, and the tendency is to just cut down everything, but it was important that some of the scenes had a sense of real time, so we ended up leaving those scenes quite long and having a lot of space there, and in other scenes we can be very efficient and very fast. This structure of being fast and then slow is almost more musical than just telling a story.
And the final remarkable element of “Blind” is the performance from Ellen Dorrit Petersen. How did you come to cast her?
It was a very long process which was in a way quite stupid because she was the first person I thought of for it! I tested almost 200 actresses and non-professionals.
Did you look into casting an actually blind actress? [Petersen is sighted]
We tried but the only one we found really was blind since birth so she wasn’t right — it’s a very different look. There’s not that many who do creative stuff and were open to [being in the film] but we looked at the possibility — it would have been interesting. And a lot of people think Ellen is blind! I got that question in a Q&A just last week.
So people meet the actress and are like, “You can see? It’s a miracle!”
Yes… we healed her! But I learnt a little about the character from seeing different actresses doing it. Ellen is not like that character at all. But I tested some actresses who were close to that character and I saw how that created something interesting. But they didn’t have what Ellen has which is just a natural seriousness and dignity and intelligence, that means you can’t reduce her to a victim. Which was the case with 90% of the other women that I tried, it became “oh, the poor blind girl!” which was something that would have destroyed the whole film for me. And Ellen has a sort of guardedness as well, she keeps something back for you to discover.
Yes, and you don’t always like her, which is important.
Which is very important. And the other characters are more immediately likable which makes it easier to pull the rug later on…
Did you watch films featuring blind people? I have fond memories of “See No Evil Hear No Evil” from childhood, but I don’t know that it stands the test of time…
No, it doesn’t! But it has some very good scenes. But what I discovered was it was the deaf guy — Gene Wilder — who had the funniest stuff. If I wanted to make money I should write a comedy with Will Ferrell as a deaf guy. Because when you see Gene Wilder sneaking into a house trying not to make a sound, but you hear the burglar alarm going Whheeee whheeee…that’s funny. But actually I discovered when I researched films about blind people that there are surprising number of them about a blind woman who is stalked by a killer.
Ah, like “Wait Until Dark” …
…which is one of the better examples. “Jennifer 8” with Uma Thurman…
…with Madeleine Stowe. Even Mia Farrow played one. [in 1971’s “See No Evil“] Of course the victim is often female [in horror films anyway] but then you have the blind woman and she is always the ultimate victim. And then you have the other kind, which is a “Scent of a Woman” feel good drama. But when I did research and spoke to people who really have lost their sight, I discovered what “blind overacting” was, because it was not like those people, not like they are in real life. It was exaggerated to the point of being a parody.
Is your writing process different if you know you’re going to direct?
The big difference is not that I am going to write for Joachim [Trier] and he is going to direct, the big difference is to write alone or to write with someone. And both have their advantages, the great thing about working together is that when you don’t have any good ideas you can throw a bad idea at your friend and he can respond to that and maybe something good happens.
But working alone I can be more intuitive because I can put off talking about it or analysing it for a much longer time. With another, you start to “sell” your idea, to explain it and discuss it much earlier and you understand what the idea is much earlier. But with “Blind” I didn’t understand a lot of stuff until late in the writing process. Which was gratifying.
Speaking of Trier, his next film, which you again co-wrote, “Louder than Bombs” is one our Most Anticipated of the year. What’s the status on it?
They’re editing it now. I’ve seen a couple of versions… it looks good, I’m very happy about it.
Do you spend time on set when he is directing?
Less and less. I was quite a lot on set with his first film, less on the second and this one, I actually went to New York for preproduction right until the first day of the shoot, and then I left. I just feel as a writer on set it’s like being a father when your girlfriend gives birth: you’re so invested in it but you’re so not useful! In case something happens and some support is needed you’re there but you can’t really do anything, mostly you’re just not useful.
Will they try for Cannes with “Louder than Bombs”?
If they finish everything in time they will definitely try for Cannes.
And how would you describe the film?
Oof, thing is, our films, they’re very hard to pitch. Have you seen “Reprise”? If you just summarize it it sounds like the most boring film ever: two best friends want to be authors.
Or ‘Oslo’: a guy walls around Oslo all day…
… and thinks about killing himself, yeah! But this is actually a straight family drama of a man and two sons a couple of years after the mother has died so it’s kind of a character study with also a grief portrayal. But I think the fact we started writing it between “Reprise” and ‘Oslo’ means it’s quite in between those films. It has the more serious tone of ‘Oslo,’ but also we experiment a little trying to get into the head of the characters.
And the title, is that a Smiths reference?
We don’t think of it as a Smiths reference — he took it from Elizabeth Smart, the poet [whose “By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept” features the phrase that The Smiths borrowed for their album title]. It’s just a good title for what the film is about, but if we get the Smiths fans in… we’ll be happy with that.
Kinda think you and Trier are already going to get the Smiths fans… But finally, tell me have you your next directorial project lined up?
No, its the early stages of writing still. It’s not “pitchable” yet. But there were some parts of “Blind” that had a little suspense element and I found that extremely exciting to shoot and edit. More like Hitchcock suspense than the shaky camera with a lot of noise thing. It doesn’t really exist any more, it’s dying out, but it’s very pure cinema and I’d like to make a film where I have some sequences like that. Even though I don’t think it will be a straight thriller. I don’t think I’m capable of doing that.
We’ll keep you posted as to “Blind”‘s U.S. release date as soon as we hear.