Hometown: Stavern, Norway.
Why She’s On Our Radar: Anne Sewitsky, a Norwegian Film School graduate, made a big splash in America with her feature film debut, the dark comedy “Happy, Happy.” The film won the Grand Jury Prize for best narrative feature after its debut in Sundance, getting snatched up by Magnolia Pictures out of the event. It was recently announced that Sewitsky’s debut is Norway’s official bid for a Foreign Language Oscar nomination this year. Not bad for your first feature.
“Happy, Happy” opens with a seemingly perfect couple moving in next door to Kaja, an eternal optimist in spite of living with a non-loving husband and an ungrateful child. The two families soon become enmeshed into each other’s lives, leaving Kaja wondering if she truly is happy.
What’s Next: Since wrapping “Happy, Happy,” Sewitsky’s released her follow-up, the children’s film “Totally True Love” in Norway. As for what’s in the works: “I have different projects here in Norway and I’m also reading some English scripts,” Sewitsky told iW.
The characters are each so well drawn and flawed. Kaja is arguably the heroine of the ensemble. Is she the character you most identify with?
Well Elizabeth, the other character, she’s in many ways much more relateable. She’s a mother with all these cynical views on life, kind of like a lot of women in the Western world. With Kaja, I think a lot of people relate to her, also myself, because she is the extreme version of a person that covers up a lot of sorrow with smiling and pretending that everything’s fine.
I relate to all the characters, but Elizabeth is probably the one I most relate to.
How did you navigate directing Agnes Kittelsen, the actress who plays Kaja? She had the tricky job of appearing to be happy, while actually breaking inside.
Actors often go through a lot of emotions. In this case, if we showed too much sorrow we wouldn’t feel too much for her, she would become more irritating. My direction became more simplistic, by saying, “Be happy, smile more.” I just had to trust the script and the character so that all the other feelings would show underneath.
So this marks your first feature film. Why did you want to come out of the gate with this domestic tale?
I collaborated on the script over the course of two to three years, so I knew the characters really well. There’s a lot of personal stories and friends’ stories in there.
In all honesty, it was just the first script that got funding.
Did you grow up in a similar isolated milieu as the characters find themselves in?
Not quite. I grew up in a very small place, probably the same size as where the characters live. I also know a lot of people from the South Coast of Norway where Kaja is from. We call ‘Happy Christians.’ People smile very much, but the area also has the highest rate of suicide. So there’s huge contrast in the people there.
The film’s so insular, taking place mainly in two homes with two families.
All of the drama becomes more intense. This film was part of a Norwegian dogma movement. When we wrote the script, we wrote it for only two locations with four actors. It was to be shot in only 20 days. There were a lot of rules initially set up. We broke those rules. But that was the intention from the very start. It was nice to first have these limits, even though we expanded on them a little bit.
You followed “Happy, Happy” with the children’s film “Totally True Love.” Did your experience of working with two children on the set of your first film give you the confidence to leap into a kid’s film?
No. The film’s based on of one of my favorite books. I had a lot of strong feelings for it. I remember thinking, “Oh my God, I’m going to be directing all these children.” It’s one of the most challenging things you can do, but… [pauses], I think I will wait a long time before I direct children again. It brings out the best things and the worst things in you. It’s just a very different way of working.
So why the change of pace following “Happy, Happy”? Your debut has such a sardonic tone, miles away from children’s fare.
I work on a lot of different projects at the same time. Right after “Happy, Happy,” I worked on a dark, dramatic TV series. I need to have different directions with each project. I look for subjects that I can relate to in some way. Both “Happy, Happy” and “Totally True Love” are totally different films, and they each presented different challenges.
It was a coincidence that I got the funding at the same time for both films. That’s probably the main reason they were so different.
“Happy, Happy” did very well on the American festival circuit. Did it catch you by surprise?
It was a huge shock. It was most unexpected, but fantastic. I don’t know what kind of expectations we had when we brought it over. When you make a film in your own country with humor that relates to the Norwegian people, it’s very intimidating to put it into an American context to see how the American audience reacts. Americans have different references. It was fantastic to see how the American audience took the same humor.
Does the response inspire you to want to make a film in English?
If I find the right project, yes of course. It’s nice to have a bigger audience. If I find something I can relate to, why not? As a director, that’s the most intimidating thing: you have to be convinced that your way of seeing things is something that other people can relate to.