Director Tea Lindeburg discusses her remarkable film As in Heaven about a day in the life of a teenage girl about to lose everything in 1880s Denmark. The film is still seeking distribution.
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Early in As In Heaven, a scene of Lise (Flora Ofelia Hofmann Lindahl) play-fighting with her sister comes to an abrupt end with a hard cut to her father’s (Thure Lindhardt) arrival, who gives Lise a task worthy of an adult: collecting debts from their neighbour. Throughout the course of the day in 1880s rural Denmark, Lise’s carefree childish pursuits will continually be interrupted by adult responsibilities over which she has little control. Whether it’s taking care of her younger siblings or something else, Lise is expected to act more and more like a grown up without gaining access to any of the privileges of being an adult, including being admitted to the room where her mother is going through a difficult labour.
“I’d never read anything where the [mother’s] labour is actually the frame of the story,” first-time writer-director Tea Lindeburg told me. It’s that fateful labour that will, over the course of one intense and stressful night, change the course of Lise’s life. At the beginning of the film, she has so much hope for the future, already packing her bag to go away to school in the near future, crushing on a boy, and excited for a life that she thinks and hopes awaits her. But a portentous dream in which the sky pours down blood instead of rain is the first sign that this Lise’s path won’t be smooth. Little by little, her hopes are chipped away, as she starts to lose everything that matters to her, and faces the threat of losing her mother.
As In Heaven gives us access to women’s spaces that were themselves secret places at the time: children were sent away for the actual childbirth, and husbands went off to drink and celebrate. Lise only glimpses what’s happening to her mother through windows and doors, hiding where she can, and occasionally having doors slammed in her face lest she see the grown up world she has not yet been admitted to. Throughout, Lise has no control: over the outcome of her mother’s labour or what that will mean for Lise’s own hopes and dreams.
Shot on film in the light browns, greens, and blues that define farm life, As In Heaven drops us into this older world, and lets us observe Lise observing her place in it. As Lindeburg learned in the edit, “The more we went inside Lise, her perspective, and her experience, the better it got.” The camera only ever shows us what Lise sees, her limited perspective of incomplete information, and cuts to her trying to make sense of what’s going on around her. Peter Albrechtson’s exquisite sound design further puts us into Lise’s headspace, where the creaking floor and doors of the farmhouse and the sounds of insects not only build the world but heighten the tension.
Before the world premiere of As In Heaven, I sat down with Danish filmmaker Tea Lindeburg to discuss her remarkable debut, telling the story from Lise’s perspective, and how she created the realistic period look and sound of the film.
Seventh Row (7R): What was the genesis of As in Heaven? What made you want to tell this story?
Tea Lindeburg: It was actually based on a book written in 1912 by a quite overlooked Danish, female author. It’s loosely based on her own story. The book had always been on my mom’s bookshelf, and I’ve always looked at it. The title, in English, I think, is Night of Death. That title really drew me to it.
I read it right after my own son was born about nine years ago, and I was immediately struck by it. It’s such an intense story. I’d never read anything where the [mother’s] labour is actually the frame of the story. I knew right away that this was the film I wanted to make. [I was struck] especially [because of] the children’s point of view and their experience. I was struck by Lise, the young girl, coming of age, and how everything changed for her over that night — how lonely and unable to do anything those children were, [except] watch how it all goes down. All they can do is pray to God, because it’s out of their hands.
7R: What was the process for adapting the novel?
Tea Lindeburg: I read the book. It’s quite short; it’s only like 100 pages. It’s written from an all-knowing perspective. It’s not Lise’s story in the actual book. I knew right away that it had to be her story, so I put the book aside, and I just started writing out what struck me. How did I see the story based on what I remembered and how I felt? I wrote the script doing that, and then I went back, and I reread the story to see if there were any major things that I missed. In the book, there is no story about her going off to school. That’s something that I felt made sense. The love affair is not there either. I put those things into the script.
7R: I love those things. It’s watching her lose all the things that she loves in one night.
Tea Lindeburg: Exactly. I felt like she needed to lose everything. By putting in a crush and her having an opportunity to go somewhere else and having a different life, it sets it all up in a bigger perspective. It defines Lise as someone who will not be content in this life at the farm, staying there. These are not her dreams. It’s setting up that she has other hopes and dreams. She’s actually on her way to something else, another life, and then [that is taken] away from her. She doesn’t just lose her mother, but she also loses the future she’s dreaming of. It made sense to me to just crush her completely.
She has absolutely no control in her life. All she can do is try to rise and meet that future that’s now hers, which is not the one she dreamed of. I feel like Lise is a strong girl, and she’ll survive, but it’s not going to be what she dreamt of.
I started with a synopsis. In Denmark, you apply to the National Film Board with an idea, and then they either give you money or they don’t. The first time I applied, it was another commissioning editor who was there at the time. She was like, “No, I don’t see anything in this story at all. I don’t think you should make this film.”
That’s when I just started writing the script anyway. When I was done with that, I found a really great producer who really believed in it and was like, for sure, let’s do it. [By then,] there was a new film editor who had started [at the National Film Board]. Luckily, she saw the film right away and was like, yes, I want to work with this. From then on, it was actually quite smooth. It’s a quite low-budget film.
7R: It’s a very internal story of watching Lise watch the world around her, understanding it and also understanding her place in it. What does that look like in the writing?
Tea Lindeburg: Everything is written from her perspective in the script. The scene where she’s standing in the field and hearing the birds behind her and the camera just kind of leaves her — that is just one line in the script. All those private moments were definitely there.
I knew that I wanted nature to play a really big part in it. It’s the little human opposed to the greater universe, destiny, God. We’re just these little beings who can’t do much in this world, but we have to try and navigate.
Nature is also the force of life and destiny. It is also an opponent, in a way, because it’s Lisa against nature. But nature is also life. It’s also what’s giving life. It’s both death and life and the whole idea that there’s something that’s greater than the little human being, something that we can’t control.
7R: Can you tell me a bit about the dream sequences in As In Heaven?
Tea Lindeburg: Those were not in the book either. The whole story is based on the mother having a vision that if the doctor arrives, she will die. I felt like I needed somehow to include Lise in this. This was a way of seeing the world back then. I’m just talking about Denmark, but everyone believed in God, like there was no question: of course, God is there. But there were still premonitions, spirituality in another way, believing in visions and dreams. That was just as big of an influence as God.
I wanted to set that up in the beginning: this is part of this world, this is part of Lise’s reality, and Lise actually has this dream to begin with, that she just doesn’t listen to. It actually tells her that something horrible is going to come. She wakes up, and she forgets. She flirts with a boy, and she is young and a kid and doesn’t pay attention to it until it comes back at her full force. It’s actually telling her something.
7R: There’s a lot of danger that comes out of these beliefs though. Lise basically gets harassed and then she loses a hair clip — not exactly big crimes — and she thinks that this is going to kill her mother. And then, her cousin tells her it’s her fault.
Tea Lindeburg: They might not be big, big things she has done, but at that time, you wouldn’t steal your mom’s favourite hair clip. It’s silver. It’s probably the only piece of jewelry they have in the house. She only does it because she gets kind of vain and wants to maybe look good for that young boy. And when she’s lifting up her skirt, it’s also something you would never do at that time. That’s promiscuous, and God will frown upon that. Even though they might seem small, they’re actually quite big when you set it in that time.
I think, for Lise, if the mom didn’t have this horrible, difficult labour, she maybe would not have thought so much about that later. But because this happens, she starts putting things together and starts taking it inside of herself and being like, maybe this is my fault. She is actually the first one who brings it up with the cousins. She can’t find any other reason, so she’s blaming herself, as we do as humans: could I have done something different? Maybe this is me. All she can do is try to take it inwardly, and then apologize for what she’s done. And then, maybe that’s going to change the fate of her mom. But it doesn’t. We can do nothing as humans.
7R: How did you work with your cinematographer to develop the aesthetic for As in Heaven?
Tea Lindeburg: We knew right away that we wanted to shoot this on film, just because it has a totally different sensitivity. We wanted it to be beautiful, because this is such a harsh and sad story. We needed some kind of hope. But we also didn’t want perfect beauty; we wanted the grains and the flaws, like when there was a hair on the lens. We wanted poetry.
Every day of shooting, of course, we had a plan. But we were also very open to what gifts show up. One night, we were driving home from one location, and it was just so misty and foggy and beautiful outside. I called him from my car, like, “Stop, let’s go shoot.” He was like, “Yes, let’s go. I saw the same.” We just got out, and we started shooting the misty night with the sun setting.
7R: The birth is kind of a secret. Everyone is sent away. The kids have to hide behind the doors and walls to figure out what’s going on. How did you think about that?
Tea Lindeburg: Everything had to be from the children’s perspective. You watch the adults’ world, but you don’t understand it. You don’t know exactly what’s going on. They never really get the whole picture. It’s through a door or through the window or through those cracks — until the very end, when Lise becomes part of the adult world.
7R: How did you find the locations for As In Heaven?
Tea Lindeburg: There aren’t that many [period farmhouses]. You would think, maybe in Denmark, these untouched buildings from the 1880s are all over the place. But a lot of them have been renovated. It was a big job finding the real locations that have those rooms that we could work in, according to the script. A lot of time went into location scouting.
The film takes place over twenty-four hours, and we shot it in five weeks. We were very dependent on the weather because it had to be the same lighting. The way that the light changes throughout the story — that is kind of what drives the story: time.
7R: How did you think about the period details in the costumes and sets?
Tea Lindeburg: The production designer and I were very specific about keeping it to — we weren’t like it has to be 1880, but something around that time. We didn’t want anything from 1910 coming into the film. We were very specific on creating that true 1880s period in Denmark. A lot of time also went into finding all those right props and colours. We repainted a lot of rooms of the main farm. We wanted colours; we didn’t want it to be just black and white. We wanted life. I had a really talented production designer, who is a super nerd and loves [research].
We wanted it to be as true as possible. But at the same time, if we, for example, liked the pink better, we’d go for the pink as long as it fits in somehow. So of course, there were artistic choices. Like the red shoes that those girls fight over, they weren’t really a pair of shoes that you would have [during the period], but they were close. We know that it’s not 1880s, but that doesn’t matter, because that’s better for telling the story.
Most of the costumes are original pieces of clothing from the 1880s. I think it was only one or two costumes that were sewn from scratch. But the rest were original pieces. There was also only that one costume so the kids couldn’t spill ketchup. It’s like, “No! Wear the apron!”
7R: What was the process for finding and working with all of the kids in the cast of As In Heaven?
Tea Lindeburg: I worked with a really great children’s caster in Denmark. We started casting half a year prior to the shooting. It was a big casting. It was really challenging also, because we couldn’t start too early because kids grow up so fast. Some of them we found only three weeks before the shoot. We had a lot of kids coming into casting. We shot in a very specific part of Denmark, and we were looking for kids from that region that have that accent.
After I found them, I had a lot of workshops with them. We rehearsed everything, and I talked them through all the scenes. They knew exactly what was going to happen. They became really great friends. They became a little group of kids who felt like they were brothers and sisters. When we spoke to them, we would only use their characters’ names. When they spoke to each other, they started addressing each other as the characters instead of their real names to get them into that.
Some of the scenes with the kids are improvised. We would talk about what we want, like, “I want you to talk about finding apples. You guys should fight over who jumped the furthest.” We would start the scenes, and the kids would improvise within those frames. I wanted those little moments where one would fall or one would say something that seemed kid-like or natural. I wanted to have that playfulness in the kids.
7R: Especially in the scenes around the birth, there’s a lot of moving pieces, and a lot of actors: the staff, and then all the family involved with the birth. How did you approach that?
Tea Lindeburg: I broke it up into smaller pieces. I started rehearsing with all the actors, except for the farmhands who come in later, but with the women and the birth at the end, and the girls sneaking through the farm. We rehearsed the whole scene, so everyone knew where they were.
And then, we broke it down into little pieces, like, “Now we start with the beginning, then we go there, and then we go there, then we go there.” And the other actors go out of the way until we went to their part. It was very important to get the scene [to be like] a play to begin with so we knew what the scene would look like if it was just one long take. And then, after that, just breaking it down.
We rehearsed on set, but I had planned it out in my head and with the cinematographer. Where they were moving around was specifically planned beforehand, because I could do that without the actors. And then, once the actors came on set, we planned the whole flow of the scene that morning.
7R: Can you tell me about the sound design in As In Heaven? It’s so fantastic.
Tea Lindeburg: Very early on, I knew that I didn’t want any background music, except for the music that either the characters would sing or would play. The sound became a much bigger player in the film. We needed the sound to convey those feelings that you usually use music for.
We worked with two different kinds of sound. We worked with very documentary-like sound. The sound designer did a lot of research, like, what did the insects sound like back then? There were so many more insects. What kinds of birds were there? And how did those specific shoes that they wore sound when you walked on those planks in the farm?
At the same time, we had Lise’s subjective sound. How does she hear the world? What state of mind is she in? How does she experience it? The contrast between those two [approaches to the sound] makes [the sound] dynamic and gives us a way inside of Lise’s head all the time in those really crucial moments where she feels life attacking her.
7R: Was it important to get production sound from where you’re shooting?
Tea Lindeburg: [The sound designer] went [to the locations] and recorded afterwards a lot of sounds in that specific place. This location was kept the way it was back then. The floors were the right floors. The way that sound bounces off the wall, like someone drumming or the sounds of the pans in the kitchen.
We also had a whole sound design team from Ireland who did foley, who specialise in sounds from the late 1800s and for period films. They have a big estate set up where they have all the correct floors, and they have the right shoes. So they redid all those sounds. They were quite amazing.
7R: Can you tell me a bit about the editing process for As In Heaven?
Tea Lindeburg: I worked with a really great, very sensitive editor. The first time you see the first cut, you just want to kill yourself. You’re like, this is the worst film you’ve ever seen in your life and there’s never going to be a movie. Through the editing process, we realised that we had to go closer on Lise, the main character. That was like our mantra: we’ve gotta go closer. There was one scene in the film where Lise is actually not there, and that just didn’t work. The more we went inside Lise, her perspective, and her experience, the better it got.
We would have written statements like, “This is a film about blah blah blah.” And then, we would define it more and more, until we found, this is what [the film] is, [expressed] in one sentence. And then, [we’d ask ourselves] do we achieve this? Are we achieving this in every goddamn scene?
It was a wonderful process, but also very hard, because it’s such a hard film, and we felt so much. [When] you have watched it for the twentieth time, you’re like, I have no feelings. Did we ruin it by taking this out? There are several scenes at the end that we’ve taken out, because the ending was simply too long.
7R: What are you working on next?
Tea Lindeburg: It’s also a period piece, and it’s a love story with some supernatural elements.
Screens digitally across Canada on Thursday, September 16 at 3 pm for a 4-hour window. Tickets are available here.
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