Director Tuva Novotny and lead actress Pia Tjelta discuss Blind Spot, a technically and conceptually dazzling feature debut about the stigma around mental illness.
With the advent of lighter and cheaper cameras, one-take films have sprung up in numbers in the past few years. Victoria followed a young woman on a wild night out in Berlin, taking the audience through clubs, empty streets, and even dangerous shootouts. But the effect of this setup in Tuva Novotny’s Blind Spot comes closer to that in László Nemes’ Son of Saul. That film’s singular perspective highlighted the total chaos and horror on the ground that a more clinical look at the Nazi system as a whole might omit. The one-take in Novotny’s feature debut similarly underlines the lead character’s failure to grasp all the aspects of their reality: Maria (Pia Tjelta) thought that she knew her teenage daughter well, but there were facets of her life that she never saw.
Unlike most one-take films, Blind Spot evolves in a realistic register, trusting that its characters and what they are going through are interesting and dramatic enough to keep our attention. It’s a big gamble that pays off: Blind Spot is a definite highlight of TIFF ‘18.
Tuva Novotny is a celebrated actress in Sweden who has also worked in Hollywood, most recently appearing in Annihilation and Eat Pray Love; her understanding of what makes a performance interesting and her working relationship with lead actress Pia Tjelta show a real investment in filmmaking, and mark a new directing voice to keep an eye on.
Tuva Novotny and Pia Tjelta talked to us in Toronto about the film’s sensitive treatment of mental illness, the unusual freedom offered to the actors, the film’s sound design and grading, and more.
Seventh Row (7R): What was the genesis of the project?
Tuva Novotny (TN): A sense that there is a lack of knowledge in the area of mental health. Not that we are not acknowledging it: we are, we’re embracing it, it’s not as stigmatised. But I feel that there’s still a lack of basic tools in terms of asking, “Are you having suicidal thoughts? How are you really?”
In Norway, at the moment, there’s quite a lot of tension around young people and mental health. Everywhere, there’s a raised awareness, and we’re seeing a lack of knowledge in the more adult world. I felt that it was a good time to address our blind spots with mental illness.
7R: When I started watching the film, I didn’t know that it would all be shot in one take. It’s such a striking choice.
TN: I prefer to talk about it as a real time take, because as soon as you talk about it as a one take, it becomes technical, like an experiment. I wanted to get away from the technical side of things.
I wanted the actors to be in the situation in real time: to not be able to do it again, not be able to act, but to be in it. That’s acting, too, but that’s a forgotten part of acting because we’re so trained with camera angles. Everyone’s done loads of TV. We’re used to finding light…'I prefer to talk about it as a real time take, because as soon as you talk about it as a one take, it becomes technical, like an experiment.'Click To Tweet
I wanted it to be as close to authenticity as possible because of the subject. So I worked closely with psychiatrists and organisations on preventative methods for suicide. They felt it was important to keep a sober gaze on the subject — not dramatising it and not glorifying it. For me, a real time take reduces the drama of it. Because when you edit, you add suspense. Real time was actually a way for me to make it more sober.
7R: There is basically one dramatic event in the film, and the rest is watching these people deal with it. How did you work with your actors to make that feel both real and engaging?
TN: A lot of the questions the producers asked were, “Is it going to be boring? Is it going to be too slow? Is it going to be too textually heavy?” The characters talk a lot in the movie.
For me, watching movies today, they’re so fast. There’s so much information. We’re used to watching loads going on. I felt that we wanted to rest. In our work as actors, we’re so used to filling the silences. Here, it was about resting in the silences.'I wanted the actors to be in the situation in real time: to not be able to do it again, not be able to act, but to be in it. That’s acting, too.'Click To Tweet
A big part of it was I watched this fantastic actress [Pia Tjelta], and just by looking at her, I’m interested in what’s going on inside her head.
Pia Tjelta (PT): A lot of our conversations were about letting go of the actual ‘acting’ part. As an actress, you want to try to be interesting. Tuva was very much asking me to just trust that if you’re silent, and don’t know what to do, don’t do anything. Don’t push your emotions anywhere. If they come, they will come, and then it will be natural and real. “Don’t push anything” was your [Tuva’s] main direction. We talked a lot pre-shooting. We were very much together in that process, but when it came to shooting the movie, you [Tuva] did not direct me. You did not adjust me during the take.'For me, a real time take reduces the drama of it. Because when you edit, you add suspense. Real time was actually a way for me to make it more sober.Click To Tweet
7R: Was that scary?
PT: Yes. Very, very scary. But because of our closeness and our trust, I didn’t feel alone during the shoot.
TN: Basically, the whole cast is professional doctors and paramedics, except for the four adult actors and the one young girl who are acting. I think the biggest challenge for the actors was, like you say, me giving a responsibility to the actors to trust that they are interesting enough.'In our work as actors, we’re so used to filling the silences. Here, it was about resting in the silences.'Click To Tweet
I was obviously nervous, because of the producers, that it was going to be boring or slow, and I was nervous for the younger audience. But interestingly enough, the response we’ve had is that the authenticity kind of gathers everyone. It doesn’t matter if it’s slow, you’re still interested.
There’s this scene from a Lynne Ramsay film, Morvern Callar [(2002)], that I’ve been really inspired by. This film has been like a bible for me. There’s this scene where Morvern gets out of the bathtub, and it’s stuff that you would normally cut away from! She gets out, and she just pulls her hair like you do when you’ve been in the shower — squeezes the water out. I was so fascinated by that moment that anyone else would lose in the editing room. For me, it was a moment where I could relate to the character, because there’s a moment with her not doing anything, not acting, not saying anything, just being. It was like, wow, I feel her now. That’s what was interesting to me, the stuff you would normally lose.'Tuva was very much asking me to just trust that if you’re silent, and don’t know what to do, don’t do anything. Don’t push your emotions anywhere.'Click To Tweet
PT: I have been preaching this on other projects, especially in television series where everything is so plot-based. What you want, as a viewer, is to be alone with the characters, to see them in situations where they are alone. They’re not being watched. They’re not performing. That’s how you get under the skin of the character. People are very afraid of just that.
7R: The film deals with some very intense emotions that not many people have experienced. I wouldn’t even be able to begin to imagine what it’s like. How did you manage to make this appear realistic?
TN: Pia would constantly be asking, “I’m not sure I’m going to be able to repeat this another time.” And then I would ask Pia to relax and not think that she had to perform anything. The very dramatic sequence at the beginning of the movie is actually a sequence where we talked a lot about letting go, just sailing through whatever comes.
From research with people who have experienced situations like this, reactions of shock are so varied. They’re so different. Some people are apathetic; some people are crazy, screaming. And it’s also changing constantly. That’s why I felt that we wanted every kind of reaction to be valid. We didn’t have to be screaming and yelling. We didn’t have to be crying. I remember Pia was saying, “I’m not sure I’m going to be able to get any tears,” and I replied, “That’s fine! That’s going to be natural for you in this situation.” Which was great. Which is what makes that scene beautiful. You’re in and out of her exhaustion and horror.'The biggest challenge for the actors was me giving them a responsibility to trust that they are interesting enough.'Click To Tweet
7R: Near the end of the film, Pia is just alone in the car, and she begins and stops crying many times.
PT: The script was very dynamic and organically written. As research, I read about different grief stages and shock processes and how they affect people. I spoke a lot to someone who works with parents who lost their children or have been in crisis. She fed me stories about mothers and fathers. I was looking for things I could use.
But as we shot the movie, it was just about forgetting all of that, but having the knowledge in the back of my mind.'I was fascinated by that moment from Lynne Ramsay's MORVERN CALLAR where Morvern gets out of the bath and squeezes the water out of her hair. Anyone else would lose that in the editing room'Click To Tweet
7R: The reactions of the men in the film are interesting, like the doctors and the father. But you choose to stay with the mother. Why is that?
TN: When you talk about parental instincts, you often refer to the mother — mother’s instincts. Obviously, fathers have it, too, but to me, to put the situation into the mother-daughter relationship was the kind of ultimate version, where you know that your one job is to take care of this person. We have friendship relationships, love relationships, and other family relationships where we want to take care of them; we want to be there for them. But the mother-daughter relationship is the most acute version of the situation.
It would have been a different story if it was a father and a son. Traditionally, we look at men as introverts and women as talkative and communicative. And this is a young girl who looks like everything is good, but she’s actually a total introvert. She has not communicated how she feels. So the female perspective was important.'What you want, as a viewer, is to be alone with the characters, to see them in situations where they are alone. They’re not being watched. They’re not performing.Click To Tweet
7R: There’s a revelation in the film about something in the past. Some people might say it’s an explanation for everything that’s happened in the film — but it doesn’t feel like an explanation. It feels like they’re trying to find an explanation, but really, they don’t know. How did you present this revelation as something that won’t be dangerously read as an explanation?
TN: We were just in a session today where they pointed that out, too. We were talking about writing scripts where you’re not exposing things too much. There’s a scene where I felt it was important to tell the backstory, but in a way that it doesn’t feel explanatory or expositional.
The way to deal with it was for me to take a step outside and look at the bigger perspective of the movie’s mission. It was important that, at some point, we got an idea that maybe there was a reason, an explanation. But the point is that even though there might have been, there was no sign. You couldn’t have seen it. And maybe we can train ourselves to catch each others’ signals better.
7R: I found the sound design really impressive. You can just close your eyes and you know exactly what’s going on. It really adds to the visceral element of the film.
TN: Sound has always been very important for me in movie-making. Peter Albertson, the sound designer, was actually on the project at a very early stage, because I knew I was not going to edit it, and I knew I was not going to use music or score. So the sounds of the movie were so important. I needed someone that was aware of the delicacy of the sound.
We had some fights along the way, because he also wanted to put more drama into the film by increasing the sound of the storm. I would always go, “Down with the storm! Down with the storm!” We’re used to making drama in movies. But just like with the Lynne Ramsay scene, what’s important is the little details of feeling intimate with the story, feeling like you’re there in the room.'I knew I was not going to edit it, and I knew I was not going to use music or score. So the sounds of the movie were so important.'Click To Tweet
PT: I was so fascinated by how he managed to move sound. He nearly makes music of it. As a viewer, I can’t feel that there’s no music in the movie because how he moves the sounds makes you feel like it’s music.
7R: Could you tell me a bit about the cinematography? It’s handheld, but it doesn’t feel harsh. The colours are quite soft tones.
TN: I’m really nerdy about grading the colour of a movie. So we had a fight about that, too. In the end scene, I really wanted a soft tone that would include the audience. I was very picky about that.
For cinematography, we did compromise. It’s filmed in real time, but we used both steadicam and handheld. We actually had three points overlapping, which we then glued together. The softer feel of it also comes from the fact that we are using steadicam in some sequences. We weren’t able to get a steadicam into cars, so we go handheld there.'What’s important is the little details of feeling intimate with the story, feeling like you’re there in the room.'Click To Tweet
7R: Pia, how was it to act these intense emotions with someone always following you around?
PT: It’s about trust and about being one, breathing with the cinematographer. It’s like a choreography — always knowing where he was. He was not disturbing. He was my safe place, in a way, because me and him did it together.
7R: Is there anything you’d like to add?
TN: It’s been important for us to use this movie to communicate the methods of preventing suicide that the psychiatrist working with me on the project has preached. It’s about talking about mental illness and addressing it straight instead of talking around it. Those conversations have been arranged at screenings when we distributed the film in Norway.
Showing it here, it’s a bit tricky, because we don’t have that support system around us. But I think it’s important to point out that every country has Red Cross numbers you can call. There are experts to get help from.
A big step is just to ask each other how we are. That’s been a big mission of the movie. A good response we have is most people come out of the cinema and they go, “I need to call my kid,” or “I need to talk to my friend.” So they get the message.
7R: Are you going to direct another film?
TN: I’m just finishing another one, actually. We shot it in three days, so it’s done and it’s premiering this Christmas in Scandinavia.
7R: Is this one similar?
TN: Not at all. It’s a commercial Christmas movie about a 63-year-old woman who gets divorced and starts over in life.
Seventh Row favourite Joachim Trier is a master at depicting depression, from his arthouse breakout, Oslo, August 31st, to his English language debut, Louder Than Bombs (our first ever Special Issue film!). In another Special Issue, we wrote about how Personal Shopper conflates depression with technological obsession. Adam Garnet Jones (Fire Song) and Anne Émond (Our Loved Ones) both spoke about handling the difficult subject matter of suicide in cinema.