Home Economics with Heart; Norway's Bent Hamer Talks About "Kitchen Stories"
by Liza Bear
Two men in a kitchen who're not supposed to interact? With a witty script, finesse, and deft performances in "Kitchen Stories," Norwegian writer-director Bent Hamer is able to draw a sly bittersweet comedy out of this unlikely premise -- and to create a highly likable, absurdist film that's cinematic in the best sense.
Reclusive but wily old bird Isak (Joachim Calmeyer) agrees to take part in a Swedish Research Institute study about the movements of single males in the kitchen, supposedly in an attempt to make their kitchens more efficient. Set in the early '50s, the heyday of home economics and positivism, in the snowy village of Lanstadt in northern Norway. Isak's grey-green wood-panelled farmhouse kitchen is free of mechanical-appliance clutter. The scissors that cut his neighbor's hair and the springboard mousetrap are as technological as it gets as observer and observed play a kind of cat-and-mouse game. But Isak soon discovers that the horse he'd been promised for his participation in the study was pure marketing hype. So at the outset his reaction to being watched eight hours a day from a spindly umpire's chair by amiable Swedish observer Folke (Tomas Norstrom) is hardly welcoming. Lots of lively, telling details and plenty of visual gags, with echoes of Jacques Tati, accompany the passage from mute hostility to a burgeoning friendship as the characters warm up to each other, and we to them. There are dramatic consequences to this rapprochement. But beyond their personal situation, the film resonates with a historical subtext and intimations of change.
I discussed some of these issues and others with Bent Hamer during his recent visit to New York. "Kitchen Stories," his second feature, is now playing from IFC Films.
indieWIRE: You were born in Norway, but you went to school in Sweden.
Bent Hamer: Yes. I still live in Norway, but I went to Stockholm to study film because [at the time] I couldn't have done that in Norway.
iW: In the opening sequences much of the humor is based on the Norwegians making digs at the Swedes. What are some major or subtle differences -- how do Norwegians and Swedes see each other?
Hamer: This [film] is set in the '50s -- a time that was far more serious about the war. For my grandparents' generation [the distinction between the two countries] was a big thing during World War II.
iW: And the Norwegians were...
Hamer: Fighting against the Germans... So the war's one difference. I had to take that seriously because it was the '50s. So there is quite a serious undertone to the story. [The Swedes were neutral observers, as they have been for 200 years].
iW: Culturally the Swedes are more commercial, more industrialized, and the Norwegians more rural and tough-guy, is that it?
Hamer: In a way. If you go far back in history Sweden was a huge country. But I grew up in the '60s [when] most people watched Swedish television and listened to Swedish radio. We always looked to the Swedes.
iW: As being more "advanced," or what?
Hamer: Yes, Sweden was always ahead of us in industry. At one time when they took land in the Baltic and down to Poland, they were quite a powerful country. We were under the Swedes for a period of 100 years. Both countries go as far North but Sweden goes [south] to Germany and is more in touch with Europe. In the mid-17th century [French philosopher Rene] Descartes lived in Stockholm. I don't know what was going on in Norway then, but at least there were no philosophy discussions.
iW: So jokes between Swedes and Norwegians are common.
Hamer: These days it's different. They still have [famous natural scientist] Linnaeus. But we have oil and oysters. And many writers other than Ibsen.
iW: This film as well as your first feature, "Eggs," and your short films, "Sunday Dinner" and "Happy Hour," are sort of food- and drink- oriented. Do you like to cook?
Hamer: I'm the housewife in our house so I do all the shopping and all the cooking, and I always did, before it was trendy like today. So, yeah, I grew up with food through my mother and my grandmother.
iW: What did your parents do?
Hamer: My father had a grocery store and both of them worked in it.
iW: From the minute you see the silvery green humps of the Swedish trailers, the details of the mise en scene, the border guard's expression, everything seems perfect. Does this film represent a breakthrough for you?
Hamer: I was very happy with [my first feature] "Eggs" also. It also premiered in Cannes. But this one is the next step to being recognized [internationally].
iW: You wrote the script, right?
Hamer: Yeah, with my co-producer, a friend from Sweden. Because, you know, the Norwegian characters speak Norwegian and the Swedes speak Swedish. So I needed help with dialogue.
iW: Oh yes? Do they share vocabulary?
Hamer: More or less. That's why they can talk together. We thought about standardizing it, but that would have taken away the focus. But in the 50s, they might not have understood every word.
iW: As a director, what was the real challenge of this film?
Hamer: Well, it's a challenge when you put two people into the same room for the whole film and they don't talk to each other for a long time. I thought it would be hard get financing for it. But I was very eager to stick to the concept because that's what makes the humor -- and not to attempt to do other things. Just focus on the situation. And then small things started to occur -- I mean, when you move the salt in my film, it's like the biggest explosion in an American film.
iW: So you took an early Swedish market research experiment but made a character-driven movie out of it.
Hamer: Yes. You can seldom say an idea comes from this or that because very often you steal from yourself. But one day, it's true, in a school gym sale, I found this book which used to be in every home, about "how to live your life better."
iW: Sort of like Martha Stewart now.
Hamer: I don't know Martha. [This book] was an amazing document. It was a bit about sex, about how to repair clothes or your car, the books you should have -- everything to make a healthy, happy family. But in a chapter called "The housewife has many occupations," there was this diagram that I put in the film -- it's very beautiful -- and it just said: "Observation of the housewife's travel in the kitchen during five weeks, by the Swedish [Research Institute]." And I brought three of these books. I gave away two of them and kept one. Just good gifts. That was maybe 20 years ago.
I never thought too much about it. Then after I made "Eggs," I looked at the book and always returned to this diagram I loved. I sent copies of it to my friends. But suddenly one day -- we had been working for five months on a book by Charles Bukowski, which is the next film I'm going to shoot -- it was a struggle to get it financed. Suddenly, I thought, maybe this could be a background for a whole picture. I pitched it to a consultant at the Film Board. Then we studied all the research. It was amazing. The Swedes can understand why they have Ikea.
iW: Yes, but it always falls apart.
Hamer: [laughs] It's very Swedish. Though they did this research all over Western Europe and America... But [in the film] when we leave the lab and go to Norway to watch bachelors in their own kitchens, that's where fiction takes over.
iW: The host, Izak, is slightly garrulous, cranky, solitary-looks like a man who's been alone all his life.
Hamer: He's beautiful. I don't say too much about his background. He's just continued living at the same place his mother and father lived.
iW: Traditional rural lifestyle. And the Swedish observer -- he's never been married either.
Hamer: No, they're two lonely people.
iW: The magic of the film is how they overcome that, in tiny increments.
Hamer: In a way, moving the salt cellar is the point of no return.
iW: The shots are so inventive. Did you storyboard the film?
Hamer: I rarely do storyboards. Only for very complicated shots. And I don't do regular rehearsals. I don't do much directing either. But I talk a lot to the actors. And I plan it very carefully with the DP [director of photography] so I know every shot. But I do it to be free. If there are better ideas coming from whoever is around me, I listen to them. And I made sometimes this floor plan from above so everybody knows what's going on. But I write out a shooting script.
iW: So have you lived alone a lot? Because you seem to have a real understanding of that state of mind.
Hamer: I stayed a lot with my grandparents. And I have older friends. I have two boys now, aged 3 and 8. I started a family very late in life. And I used to sail a lot. I haven't sailed alone, but a long distance with one person. But I like to be alone. When I was young, football was my life. Then in my early 20s I changed -- when you're young you want to be with people all the time, what shall we do tonight. But then I started to be together with these older friends also. But there's a ritual to drinking that you don't have when you're young -- serious drinking. You can talk or not talk. I think that helped me a lot. Discussions about whatever, but also bullshit, the importance of small talk.
iW: Did you like Hemingway?
Hamer: Yeah, I do. But he learned from [Norwegian writer] Knut Hamsun.
iW: How is it making films in Norway now? Do you get a lot of Film Board support?
Hamer: We used to have to raise 25 percent or more of the budget. We are 4 and a half million people with this common language so it's impossible to raise the money [just from Norway]. I got European co-production funds this time with Sweden, and for "Eggs" with Spain and France. For the Bukowski project, it's funds from Italy and Germany. But not too many people do it. I'm going to do the Bukowski film with [U.S. producer] Jim Stark.
iW: In English?
Hamer: Yes. The book is set in LA in the '70s. But we're probably going to shoot in Minneapolis in the present in a kind of timeless setting. If you go into a bar now, it could easily be the '70s because you have the same way of living, more or less.
iW: So, "Factotum," as in man-of-all-trades?
Hamer: Yes. This guy takes jobs so he can do what he likes best which is writing, drinking, and fucking.
iW: Pure Bukowski.
Hamer: Oh yes. I stick very closely to the original. The cliché is that he's down and out and "excluding" instead of "including" but hopefully I can give the role some warmth so that people can empathize... And it's very funny, sharp, even entertaining. Though I will not try to make it "entertaining" but to stick to Bukowski.