Norwegian writer-director Maria Sødahl discusses her remarkable second film, Hope, with lead actors Andrea Bræin Hovig and Stellan Skarsgård.
The week between Christmas and New Year’s proves a crucible for a married couple’s relationship in Maria Sødahl’s smart and sensitive drama, Hope. Unlike most dramas about cancer (including Ordinary Love also at TIFF19), the film is not about the initial diagnosis and treatment; instead Anja (Andrea Bræin Hovig) has already survived lung cancer, but just before Christmas, she discovers the cancer has spread, and surviving this is unlikely. The first bout of cancer is what kept the marriage together after a rough patch; the second diagnosis threatens to split them apart, as Anja starts to unleash all of her pent up anger — not helped by the medication the steroids she’s on, which alter her behaviour.
Throughout this tense but never sentimental film, Anja must reckon with the life she’s chosen and feels is about to lose, worrying most about how her passing will affect her children. At the same time, her husband, Tomas (Stellan Skarsgård) is going through an entirely separate journey: coping with what becoming a single father of six will mean, dealing with his wife’s lashing out without escalating things, and, of course, his own grief. They start on divergent emotional paths, but slowly find their way back to each other. Yet Skarsgård and Hovig imbue their characters with such history and love that even when they fight, you can feel the strength of their marriage and the weight of their years together. Their apartment also feels so full of history, from the books that line the walls to the bits of mess throughout, that you really believe they’ve lived here for more than a decade.
Hope is the second feature from Norwegian writer-director Maria Sødahl and perhaps her most personal: it is based on her own marriage, and she chose Skarsgård, a longtime family friend, to play her onscreen husband. Sødahl never puts a foot wrong, immersing us in the stressful situation the couple find themselves in, and allows us to feel empathy for both partners while also giving voice to the extra emotional labour that burdens women. After the film’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, I talked with Soøhdal and her lead actors Hovig and Skarsgård about crafting this rich central relationship and telling this quietly devastating story.
7R: Where did the idea for the film come from? What made you want to tell this story?
Maria Sødahl: It’s my story, so it came from this body, this mind. I got this cancer threat nine years ago. Four years ago, I started working on it, but quite reluctantly because I’m not into tear-dropping cancer movies myself. I don’t like to watch that.
I was trying to find a way to make it personal and not private, and studying myself through my family members when I was at that stage, with high steroid doses. So that’s how it started out: finding the most honest and raw and naked ways to find the situation and the memories which came to me, and not doing any censorship of what was shameful or not good behaviour.
7R: How did you think about structuring the film? It takes place over the course of a week. Was that the actual timeline for you?
Maria Sødahl: Reality was a great help. It was so much help that, actually, some people said this is too plotted because you have marriage and birthday and New Year’s Eve: it looks fake.
I tried actually to do something different at the first stages and made several things different. I tried not having her not have cancer spread, but have cancer for the first time, which would be much more potentially stronger for the storyline. And then in reality… You know? There’s all the emotions and mechanisms that became different, and then it became untruth, and then boring. I realized that anything that is interesting had to be real, in a way, and to not waste time on fictionalizing that part of the work: the medical story and the dates, Christmas, and there’s lots of things that are not in the final film, which was too much. Because reality is often too much.
Stellan Skarsgård: Life is too much.
Maria Sødahl: Enough life was the goal.
7R: And then how did you two get involved with the film?
Andrea Bræin Hovig: I had a coffee with Maria first, and she told me about the project. I had a lot of questions. We started little by little getting to know each other. And then, we did this camera test. I thought her direction was so accurate. I could immediately see that she really knew what she wanted, and she could express it. That’s when I knew I really wanted to do this.
Stellan Skarsgård: I’ve known Maria for 25 years. Her husband is a film director who I’ve made five films with, so the families knew each other. I knew the story, of course, not the details, but she sent me a couple pages synopsis. It was so fresh. It was so funny. And it was so bizarre.
The danger in doing something like this would be that you are too close to the material and you become indulgent in it. But already, in that synopsis, I saw that Maria had enough distance to be able to see herself and her own behaviour and the relationship from outside enough while able to still be inside. And I knew she was a very good director because her first film, Limbo, was a great film.
7R: You mention Maria’s direction was really precise. Can you talk about what you really loved about?
Andrea Bræin Hovig: I don’t think I ever once felt that I had to play Maria. We both agreed we wanted to build this character together, and we fought very hard for this, both of us. It was not easy. It was quite hard for both of us, and Stellan, as well.
But Maria has this seriousness about her that I really love. I really felt, and still feel, that I’m doing something important here, something of great importance for humanity. Probably not millions of people will see this, but still it has some value. This seriousness I really, really admire, and I wish more directors had this quality.
7R: You know the real people that it’s based on so well, so I’m wondering what was your process for building these characters together and preparing for the film?
Andrea Bræin Hovig: She’s very proud, which I tried to keep up in every scene. She’s so much prouder than I am, so just to get married, for Anja, was humiliating because she was too proud. That was the main goal, to keep up with that pride all the time, because I have no pride whatsoever.
Stellan Skarsgård: That’s wonderful. I’ve never thought about that, but you’re right. Absolutely right.
Andrea Bræin Hovig: It becomes a wonderful day for her, this wedding day.
Stellan Skarsgård: It’s a shock.
Andrea Bræin Hovig: Yes. And I felt really awkward in that I myself love weddings, and I cry. But when I was getting married as Anja, I felt so awkward, which was very nice for the scene. That was the only scene that I did not cry. I was totally in shock.
7R: How did you think about the aesthetic for the film? There are these wonderful long takes and a lot of two shots.
Maria Sødahl: Manuel [Alberto Claro], the DP, is a Chilean-Danish guy, and we went to the same school in Denmark — not at the same time, but we have the same kind of background. We did Limbo together, and he’s a wonderful, wonderful handheld DP.
I love the way he makes things breathe, and he never forces to tell the story. He’s always seeing what’s there and never doing a fake move. It’s like acting or directing to be really, really not forcing into something. He doesn’t intellectualize stuff so to find this raw, organic way was the goal. It’s about people and not trying to find a conceptual way to do it. 40% was shot in studio and the car scenes, etc, etc, you know.
The movie, both the visuals and the sound design, and editing even, we tried at certain points to manipulate it a bit, and you couldn’t do much before it just sucked. You could do so little before it was manipulative. To make this moment when they are in the church and the gaze, and then suddenly you feel like it’s scored. It’s not scored; that’s just the sound, but that’s really a lot. It becomes powerful because it’s being so, I wouldn’t say naturalistic, but…
Stellan Skarsgård: Restrained.
Maria Sødahl: Yeah. And it’s unsentimental, also in the DP’s work. That’s maybe the quality that it ended up being emotional, because it is not sentimental, because we don’t decorate. The house is decorated, but you decorate the surface, and not the inner parts.
7R: How was it for you two to work in this way with the hand-held camera and long takes?
Andrea Bræin Hovig: I loved it. I think he (Manuel) was great to work with. Stellan is much more aware of the cinematographer than I am. Stellan is very smart with the camera, and I’m more like, sometimes, I forget [the camera is there]. Stellan is still true in front of the camera, but he is still aware of it. I’m more all over the place. But Manuel is moving around with us, and he breathes with us, and it was a very nice experience.
Stellan Skarsgård: I worked with him on a couple of Lars von Trier films. Like Maria says, to me, the camera is another actor, and you dance with the camera. If the camera is not a part of the scene, especially if it is a moving camera, then it becomes really strange and artificial and horrifying.
A good cameraman, who is part of the scene, never asks you what will happen so I can follow with the camera, or can you hit that mark, or things like that. He is physically, as another actor, a part of the scene, and that makes something truthful when you work together. I love that kind of style.
Maria Sødahl: It’s also fun, because he’s not very conservative. He’s very mothering. Also, there’s no rules, so at the same time that you said that he wouldn’t ask somebody to do something for the camera, he’s not dogmatic in that sense. He can also do that. There’s no rules. That’s the mother thing about him. He’s the least stiff guy I’ve ever met behind the camera.
Stellan Skarsgård: It’s lovely. To say he’s not intellectualizing, he’s very prescient and open to it — that yes, we could do that, too. Every scene has a billion possibilities, and half of them are right, and half of them are wrong.
Maria Sødahl: If you are an actor, director, DP, whatever, I always search for people who immediately think of the movie and not of their specific work, and that’s him. So if you suddenly lose $1 million, he’s not like “Oh, then I can’t do my conceptualizing!” He’s very practical.
Stellan Skarsgård: I want my frame to be hanging on the frame in MOMA!
Maria Sødahl: No, really, but that’s also the sickness of a lot of DPs.
Stellan Skarsgård: Their ego. Actors, too. Some directors.
Maria Sødahl: And pride is not a good thing, in general. It stands in the way.
Andrea Bræin Hovig: Well, it can be good.
MS: We don’t need that much of it. It becomes a problem, as you can tell with your character. It’s a challenge.
7R: How did you think about the design of the apartment and shooting in it? Also, how was it for you to inhabit it? How did that help with the characters?
Stellan Skarsgård: When I came into that apartment, I became so happy. They have six children; I have eight children. They live a very similar life to me, and when I came into that apartment, it was one of the first sets that I’ve entered ever that felt like home. It has layers of time in it. You can see a relationship that has been going on for years, and every single thing has a history. It was fantastic. It was a wonderful apartment to work in.
Maria Sødahl Yes, 350 square metres, which is quite a good size.
Andrea Bræin Hovig: And I actually live in that area myself, that part of Oslo. Sometimes I stood watching out the window, and I thought I was there and not in a studio in Sweden. It felt so real, and every detail was perfection.
Stellan Skarsgård: It was also populated in a wonderful way because those kids we had, they were fantastic. And you got them together and went away…
Andrea Bræin Hovig: We went to a cottage.
Maria Sødahl: We went for a weekend together to get to know each other.
Andrea Bræin Hovig: We played games.
Maria Sødahl: Actually, what I remember the most, and it’s interesting, because when you get down to the core of the movie, it’s about family. It’s a love story, but a lot of it is about the existence of a family.
So the first meeting we had with the kids, none of them knew each other. I started talking about what kind of family I came from, not my present family, but as a child, and being quite honest, and then we took them out. They have such different backgrounds. Some of the kids don’t have siblings, and one of them didn’t know his own father, and then some of them had siblings, and to be part of this group was so nurturing. Part of the story was that they actually became a group of kids.
Stellan Skarsgård: It was fantastic to see them between takes, when they were hanging out together. It was like my kids.
Andrea Bræin Hovig: They kept playing between takes.
Maria Sødahl: Again, with the cinematographer, while preparing, we talked a lot about mess. We were searching on the streets, buildings, homes, taking pictures of what is nice messiness — good life, not too organized — and what is shabby, shitty messiness that is destructive, bad. Also, the kids when they were doing the family sculpture thing on the floor, that’s also a kind of messiness.
The structure of the apartment is like a heart [the living room/dining room/kitchen at the centre], and you have different rooms [linked to it with the hallways, like arteries], and the idea of not knowing exactly how the apartment looks. You know that there’s three rooms [the kitchen, the living room/dining room, and the couple’s bedroom], and you know there’s a hallway, and this backyard. But apart from that, you don’t really know what’s where. That was very consciously designed.
We had a goal of tactility, to have a feel of the wood and the heavy doors and not the studio feel. If we couldn’t do that, we didn’t want to make the movie.
7R: The fact that they feel like a family and a married couple with history is such an important part of the film. What was the process for developing those relationships?
Andrea Bræin Hovig: As Maria told you, we went to this cabin together and I got to know the kids quite well early on. I wanted to have an individual relationship with each of them because that’s what it’s like being a mother, each relationship is different. I have three kids myself, I don’t have six, but I know that it’s very different and they need different things from you. I worked a little like that to find what can I do for you and that was really interesting and I love them all so much. Even the grown ups. I love them too.
7R: Stellan and Andrea, how did you work together to build your characters’ relationship?
Stellan Skarsgård: Well, we shook hands and went to bed together. No. We had a week of read-throughs and talking about each scene and what is important in the scene and got all of those discussions out of the way. At the same time, we got to know each other better. And also, we are actors. We’re pretty good at imagining a relationship and getting in there quickly. Actors can adapt quickly.
Maria Sødahl: They did not cast together in front of the camera before they had their roles. So when we met for the first time, the three of us, all frightened I think, who could know if the chemistry would work out.
Andrea Bræin Hovig: I was nervous.
Maria Sødahl: It was risky. I tell this to people, and nobody believes it that we didn’t have you in the same room together. It’s like if you have an arranged marriage, and those marriages might be better than the love marriages.
The very first two days were all the bedroom scenes. It was practically a necessity because of several things, but also, I think it was good because they go there, and then it’s over, and voila.
Stellan Skarsgård: When you work with a really good actress that is not obsessed by being brilliant or by being beautiful, and is just interested, as good actors are, in the scene, in the film, in the material, it’s easy. You immediately find terrain where you can meet and create a relationship.
7R: Can you tell me about the sound design?
Maria Sødahl: The movie was finalized four days ago. I saw the movie for the first time yesterday, so I have a very fresh memory. As with everything else, I thought, from the very beginning, the sound was one element where we could stylize and make the story more subjective. But even there, [even if what you did was] so little, it became a totally different genre.
The sound is very raw edited. When she’s on steroids, I think that sound becomes very present instead of very quiet. The dynamics in the movie are very much made by the sound. There’s the town, very much sound present, then to the bedroom, the car, where the notion of time is endless, as opposed to when you are in the hospital, when it’s like bang, bang, bang. Finding when you stop and when you go ch-ch-ch. That’s pacing, helping the dynamics.
Also, I was very into, as a storytelling choice, not giving the audience too much time for breathing or for reflection within the movie, because there was no time for that. That’s what I remember. There was no fucking time for anything. I wanted that to be a part of the story, so that when the movie is over, that’s when you can reflect, that’s when you can think about your own life. Experience it through your guts more than your head and heart.
It’s a physical experience, which the sound helps with a lot. You can get close to the characters, through breath, in some parts, and then, in other parts, to get distance. Because it could be a comedy, in a way, if you wanted to treat it like that. It could’ve been a cancer comedy. Next time!
Hope screens again 9/14 at 2:30 p.m. (Scotiabank). The film is still seeking distribution in the US, UK, and Canada. Tickets here.