Interview: Thorkell August Ottarsson
What is your philosophy of making films?
I'm not so sure I have a philosophy but there are things that interest me and things that I don't find interesting at all. I'm not interested in the classical hero. I find that person boring. My heart is with the broken. The people who struggle with getting through the day, rather than the person who saves the day. I think most of us feel broken,lost and venerable but society does not celebrate those feelings. We are taught to admire the strong, the unflinching. I want to make films that focus on what most people feel but are not allowed to show.Let me take an example from a new film called Unbroken directed by Angelina Jolie. It ticks off every single cliché in the book. Shallow characters, even more shallow baddies and misguided directing which focuses on the wrappings and forgets the package.But that is not the worst about this film. It is full of outdated masculinity ideas. The main hero is a hero because he is Unbroken (and talk about a spoiler. We are told that he will not break in the title and then we are supposed to be worried).So, nothing breaks this guy. He is so tough! He can overcome anything.So what if he had been broken. What if he lost hope? Came home with PTSD? Would he be less of a hero? Less of a human being? Less of a man? Is being weak shameful? Is being human shameful? So those who broke, came back damaged, they just did not try hard enough? Were not tough enough?I have never been interested in whole and unbroken people. There is no story there and there is very little humanity. It is the broken, the downtrodden, the weak who hold my heart. They have to fight for what is easy for most of us. Every day is an uphill battle for them.They are my heroes.
How does this philosophy reflect in your films?
Most of them are about outsiders. People who don't fit into society or struggle with life. I have always been interested in the landscape inside us so I usually use the outside world as a symbol for what is happening inside the character and most of my films are about that inner world.
The first film I made as a grown up was a short film about a dream. The camera went into a head and then we saw what was happening inside the head. I guess I'm kind of stuck there. I'm always trying to get inside someone’s head. Figure out that makes them tick and see the world from their point of view.
Generally people call this type of movie sci-fi and they think these are only made for commercial purpose; there is no art sense in these types of movies. What do you tell them?
What kind of movies? Like the ones I make? Of movies about outsiders? Or movies bout what is happening inside of people? My films have never been called sci-fi but if someone did I would take it as a compliment.
No, I asked, they say, ' there is no art sense in these types of movies', where the director does not talk about real life. What do you say about the point of view of common audience? I mean those common people who think, the concept of alien is sci-fi and there is no 'art sense'. Do you think there is no art sense?
I think moving away from realism is often more real than reality and it often has more truth to it than most facts or real based stories. Let me take an example. Poetry is not realistic. It is usually written in a style no one would use when talking. It uses images that are strange and so on. Still poetry is often the best way to capture truth, feelings, moments and so on.
Art can be found in any genre. I have very little tolerance for people who only tolerate art house cinema and look down upon fantasy or sci-fi films. One of my all time favorite films is a sci-fi film and it has more truth in it about human nature than most art house films. The film is Blade Runner. To me it is just as deep and profound as any Shakespeare play.
Does that answer your question? :)
Nicely said. Who is your favorite director and why?
It is hard to pick just one since I like a lot of different styles of cinema. It's easier to make a top 5 or 10 list.
Tarkovsky is one of my all-time favorites. I even wrote/edited a book on him called Through the Mirror. It was meant as a humble thank you to the master. Tarkovsky speaks to me through his use of poetic visuals and the meditative mood in his films. All of his seven feature films are great. Masterpieces in fact. Mirror and Stalker are my favorites of these. Mirror because there he manages to capture memoriesand how the past is reflected and mixed into the present and he doesso by editing the film in what feels like a very fragmented way.
Murnau is another favorite of mine. He only made silent films. He died in a car accident before he could try his hands on sound films. Murnau was such a great master of the film language. I love silent films because there you have to tell a story visually and no one was better at that than Murnau.
Hitchcock is another favorite and I like him for the same reasons I love Murnau. He was an amazing story teller. He had an amazing sense on how to edit and film a story to best express what was needed.
David Lynch is another favorite of mine. I like him because of his capacity to film the inner world of people and because he dares to challenge the audience and go deep and dark. He also creates one of the greatest soundtracks ever.
Here are some other directors I love:
Josef von Sternberg
Carl Th. Dreyer
Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Let's start the talk about ‘Where is my Friend’. How did the idea of making that film come to your mind?
It started as a poem. A rather short poem about identity. A friend of mine suggested I should film it and I kept thinking about it. Then one day my brother told me that he was feeling down. I felt like he was losing his identity and could not find himself. I asked him if he would like to make a film about that. He liked the idea so I wrote the script. The idea for the tunnel came while we were filming, and it really saved the film. I doubt it had been as good without it.
Oh, you write poems. That's great. But the thought of 'your friend' ( in the film ) has some significance. Like he thought of himself as an alien, and the doctor got a stone instead of his heart. One question, I have, why stone ? And then the man thought that's a walkie-talkie. Heart -> Stone -> Walkie-talkie. Is there any hidden meaning?
Alien because of alienation. He has trouble with connecting to the world. Feels like an alien/alienated.
Stone because difficult. Experience sometimes hardens our hearts, which in turn alienates us. The heart being a possible walkie-talkie is therefore fitting. I also think it is a little funny :)
A lot of people feel alienated. Some all of their life, others parts of their life. Some just partly. Many of the best films ever made deal with this, like Taxi Driver, Pickpocket, Le Samourai and almost all of the films of Antonioni, just to name few of them. The reason way these films are so universal and just as fresh today as when they were made is because alienation is always relevant. So that's the significance of his problems in my opinion.
The man who acted in the main character’s role, why did you cast him?
Yes I did but it was an easy pick. He is my brother and loves to act.
He acts in most of my films.
No, I mean, why him? Do you think his appearance is perfect for the character?
I think he is very good at playing the kind of people I'm interested in and the camera does love him. It is a pleasure to watch him on screen. Also, he has a lot of time and is free, so that helps. :)
:) Is this your first film?
No it is not. I made films as a teenager and my dream was to become a filmmaker. There was no film school in Iceland at the time so nothing became of that. I studied theology and film theory instead. Then when I finished my studies I started making films again. Where is My Friend? is my 5th film after finishing my studies. I don't remember how many films I made as a youth but it's around 10. Most of them lost today.
And you are an independent film maker today. Please tell about your struggle.
The main problem is time and people. It's not so hard to finance a film since modern technology makes it cheap. I try to come up with ideas that are simple and cheap and then all you need is people and time. Now you can choose between working with real actors or amateurs.
Real actors bring more to the role but they are usually very busy which means that there is a huge pressure on finishing their parts in a short time. It creates a lot of stress. It's also hard to find a weekend that fits for all involved. This is why I prefer to work with amateurs. You have enough time to film what you need and you can do it when it fits you.
Of course I could pay the real actors for acting in the film but that means I have to apply for funds from the government. A lot of film makers do that. First they get support to write the script, then to film it and so on. It is a long process and there are no guarantees. The director who won the last big short film competition here in Norway had applied for financial support and was turned down. He financed the film himself and won. And here we are talking about a guy who already had won once before.
I make films because I love making films so I try to stay away from everything that will make it boring. Applications are boring. Waiting for an answer is boring. Being on someone else's mercy is boring. I rather make smaller films with amateurs for nothing and have a good time than go through that hustle.
I have a list of something like 20 ideas for films. I go through that list and find what interests me most at this moment and then I just pick what I feel most like doing at that moment. It probably does mean that I will never be one of the big guys. I will be the little known guy who made films for himself. I'm actually pleased with that. That's how I do most of my art. I don't promote my photos. I don't promote my poems. I do art for the love of art and because it makes me happy. If anyone enjoys it also they are welcome to it.
What do you think about Indian movies?
I'm a huge fan of Satyajit Ray and RitwikGhatak and I do like some of Bollywood films. I also like Deepa Mehta's trilogy of elements (fire, earth and water) and I like some of Mira Nair, like Salaam Bombay! and Monsoon Wedding. I do love musicals and think they are an underrated art form in the West but I do fear that they might be misused in India. Films can be a gate to truth but they can also be opium for the people. Something to keep the masses entertained and satisfied so they don't demand their rights. I fear that Bollywood taps into that. Having said that, there is no question that Bollywood has an eye for use of colors and they often come up with some great dance and song numbers. :)
Film for entertainment or art?
Both. And often the best films are both. Hitchcock is both entertainment and art in my opinion. The same goes for Lean, Murnau, Wilder and many other great directors. I don't like snobs. There is something of value in most films and they all have their time and place.
One thing I forgot to ask, you said, your favorites are Satyajit Ray and RitwikGhatak. But why there is no new name from Indian cinema?
I have seen new films from India but I have not studied the directors as well as these ones, so I could not call any of the new ones a favorite. I have for example seen almost everything Ray has made, and many of them more than once.
What do you think, what makes Ray your favorite?
I love directors who express compassion for humanity. Who don't judge people but rather try to show life as it is. You can see that Ray loved humanity. I also like the tempo in his films. He takes his time to introduce the characters. He is not obsessed with plot and telling the story quickly. In short, I like the humanism in his films.
Why not Mrinal Sen?
Because I have only seen one film by Sen, Genesis. I did like it and need to watch more.
You watched RitwikGhatak, You watched Satyajit Ray, could you feel the difference in their thoughts? And who is better?
I prefer Ray but I like the rawness in Ghatak. His films feel like street art. They are made from the guts, while Ray makes his film from his heart and mind. Both are great though.
I saw a post on your timeline, that your daughter won a prize as a short film maker. Am I right?
Yes. I have 3 daughters. One of them (the middle one) makes films. The oldest one is studying drama and acts on stage. And my wife is an Opera singer. We are a creative family. Mirjam (16), the one who makes films, loves Hitchcock and you can see that in her films. She is very good at thinking visually.
Oh, very nice. I have not seen her work. She is only sixteen and makes film, and won a prize too. That's great. How much did she get from her father?
I introduced her to Hitchcock and we regularly discuss ideas for films and scenes so I guess she got something from me :)
I wish to end the first part of your Interview with your Poem.
December 17, 2012 at 8:25am
You gave me
a straw of wheat,
as you walked
out of my life,
To decipher your offering,
I sought the advice of
and a spy.
To no avail.
I stumbled upon
a blind girl.
She ran her fingers
down the ear of the wheat.
I'm leaving you.
Dedicated to my friend David Eisen who passed away at San Francisco General Hospital on Sunday morning December 9, 2012.
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