Troell's Moments

You rarely see two countries acting as equal partners on a film. The Danish-Swedish coproduction "Everlasting Moments" by Swedish veteran auteur Jan Troell is the happy exception. Thomas Stenderup, the film's Danish producer, tells about his collaboration with Troell.

Maria Larssons evige oejeblik foto Nille Leander

"Everlasting Moments". Photo: Nille Leander

A boy is sitting at the bottom of a lake, the water around him streaked through with light from above. Reeds sway in the dim underwater half-light. We are near the end of "Everlasting Moments". The boy is Maria's seventh child, a child her husband forced on her, raping her after a fight. A child she tried to lose by jumping off the kitchen table. A boy who was struck by polio and is now enjoying his weightlessness in the water.

In Sweden in the early 1900s, in a time of social change and poverty, the young working class woman Maria wins a camera in a lottery. The camera enables Maria to see the world through new eyes, but it also becomes a threat to her somewhat alcoholic womanizer of a husband, as it brings the charming photographer Pedersen into her life.

The scene does nothing to advance the action. The boy isn't essential to the central story – much less so his enjoying weightlessness.

This is vintage Jan Troell. In his storytelling, he takes his sweet time with incidentals, often including generously calm scenes for their own sake. Scenes and shots are important in themselves. You might even say that the boy is Troell himself, resting immersed and weightless in his images, with his own light-streaked, translucent perspective on the world, the way of images.

Or, as the photographer in the film, Pedersen (a.k.a. Piff Paff Puff), tells Maria: "What do you see as you look through the camera, Maria? You see a world there to be explored – to preserve, to describe. Those who've seen it, they can't just close their eyes. You can't turn back."

INTUITION AND PREPARATION

Troell's images have tremendous poetry. From his early feature "This Is Your Life" from 1966 to "Everlasting Moments", images are the crux from which everything else draws significance and weight.

Discussing his work method in an interview in this magazine five years ago, Troell characteristically said that he prepares for his films by looking at pictures: "I look at pictures. Black and white pictures in books of photography. Or I charge up by going to art shows. When I leave the gallery, I find that I see people more clearly. I always take along some photo books when I'm shooting, and if I have a problem with a shot for a film, for instance, I pick up a photo book and open it on a random page and find the solution there. That usually works." (FILM#30, p. 23)

Troell shoots his own films, though in recent years he has been sharing the camera with the Swedish cinematographer Mischa Gavrjusjov.

Maria Larssons evige oejeblik2 foto Nille Leander
"Everlasting Moments". Photo: Nille Leander

Thomas Stenderup, his Danish producer, discusses Troell's method: "The biggest challenge of producing "Everlasting Moments" was allowing Jan to create his film. That is, giving Jan the time and other conditions he requires, while keeping the film on budget and on schedule.

"Jan has his own way of working where time is all essential. He needs time, lots of time, on an actual location — he doesn't like to work in the studio — before he is ready to shoot," Stenderup says.

"He is not a traditional director of actors. Of course, he knows where he wants to go with a character or a scene, but I never saw him direct actors in the usual sense. Instead, he puts a big effort into casting. Often, I suspect, he picks the actors long before the story has taken its final shape. He spends a lot of time talking with the actors about their parts before shooting. And he hopes to be surprised when he does! For extended or difficult scenes between two actors, he might ask them to go off by themselves somewhere – and come back with their take on the scene. Which, most often, he gladly accepts. In general, he is extremely attentive to the players in terms of lines, arrangements, etc.

"Troell doesn't work from storyboards or anything like that but lets intuition and the moment rule. Usually, he will walk around the location for a long time by himself to sort of get a handle of the place. Only then does he decide where to put the camera, which allows him to work – and operate the camera – in his own way. It's a unique method that I think is crucial to Troell's famous poetic imagery.

"He almost always keeps the camera mounted on a jib arm on a dolly. This set-up gives him a lot of mobility that he exploits with his intuition. He doesn't do 'set-ups' or 'takes' in the conventional sense. Practically no two takes are alike in terms of framing and focus. Every time he turns on the camera, something new happens – as if he were shooting a documentary. As a result, the footage for each individual scene includes a wealth of frames and details. His experience and control tell him when he has a scene covered – his way.

"This method is very demanding of his co-cameraman, Gavrjusjov, who is responsible for lighting scenes in a way that allows Jan to take 'liberties'. It also asks a lot of the set designer, Peter Bävman, responsible for giving each set the flexibility Jan needs.

"In other words, Jan doesn't know exactly what shots he will be doing, when he meets up with his crew in the morning. I’m sure he has a clear goal, an inner image. But the location, moods, characters or details in the now decide the outcome. And that can take time. On some days, even a lot of time. But once he actually starts shooting, he usually works pretty fast, and we usually complete the day’s schedule, because we prioritise the time we have.

"The challenge lay in enabling Jan to work like that. At first glance, it looks like production hell, not knowing what we'll be doing when we get together in the morning, since everyone on the crew needs to know things to be able to prepare and plan. So, the first requirement is to make everybody understand that's how it is. That it will get frustrating at times. And then, having the time (and money) to work this way."

"Jan and I made a deal that we would put a priority on time, no matter what the budget. Sure, it's a historical drama with potentially pricy set-ups, but having the time to create the images had to be the top priority.

"Over two years, we raised around 5 million euros from 26 financiers in five countries. Crucially, both Sweden and Denmark embraced the film, recognising the project as equally Danish and Swedish. Moreover, we secured distribution for the film across Scandinavia and in Germany.

"On that backdrop, we decided to spend 13 weeks on shooting, plus one week on second-unit shooting. In other words, we put a marked priority on time – and, to a slightly lesser degree, on big historical sets. We had intended to solve a lot of those digitally (cheaper!), but ultimately we dropped a lot of the digital effects, because Jan would rather shoot what he saw and felt on location," Stenderup says.

How did this method of working affect the editing?

"Jan shoots a large amount of footage, which is one reason why he prefers S16mm – then film stock doesn't eat up the whole budget. At the same time, it gives him the not-quite-perfect visual aesthetic he prefers. With such large and very varied footage, it's a bit like cutting a documentary. We set aside 26 weeks for editing, which, it must be said, is quite a long period for editing a fiction film. That we picked the Danish editor Niels Pagh Andersen was no coincidence. He is known for his fine work on a number of documentaries, and Jan and Niels quickly clicked into a fruitful collaboration. Jan, for once, left the main responsibility for editing with someone else – though he did have a hand in it," Stenderup says.

Jan Troell Maria Heiskanen Mikael Persbrandt foto Nille Leander
Troell with his leading actors Maria Heiskanen and Mikael Persbrandt. Photo: Nille Leander

FRIENDLY, HUMBLE – AND STUBBORN

Stenderup is known for his huge, uncompromising personal engagement he pours into the films of his small production company, Final Cut. His reasons for throwing himself into a project as unwieldy as Everlasting Moments are characteristic of Stenderup as a producer:

"I'm a huge admirer of Troell's films. As I see it, he is an auteur of the first order. I'm blown away by the poetic power of his images," Stenderup says.

"The first time I read the proposal for the film, I thought, 'This could be a real Troell film!' The material actually comes from a book by Jan's wife, Agneta Ulfsäter Troell, about her family’s history – a wonderful book. But Jan made the material his own. Perhaps he saw himself in it. At first glance, "Everlasting Moments" is a classic story of a working woman’s emancipation. What makes the material unique for me, is its poetic-emotional layer regarding the magic of photography: capturing a moment on a piece of photosensitive paper as proof of an 'everlasting moment', real people living, smiling, dancing, crying. Emotionally, a photograph becomes a reminder, and an aid, to live life on the conditions of mortality," the producer says.

"Then I thought, 'Will financing and producing this fairly costly, large-scale historical drama ever work out?' But, I had the sense that Jan simply had to do this film. So we made a deal to do the film, no matter how much or how little money we got together. On that premise, the project got rolling."

What kind of dialogue did you and Troell keep up about the film? How do you work together?

"Mainly, we talked a lot before the shooting, about the general things – crew, casting, etc. But we also discussed the story, which Jan co-wrote with Niklas Rådström and Agneta. For me, these talks involved finding out what the most important things were in order for Jan to realise the film in his own way – and, as I mentioned, that was mainly a question of time."

"For Jan (the artist), I (the producer) am the capital. And, as such, I represent restrictions of time and money. Jan basically seems to need this personified conflict in his daily work, possibly to sharpen his eye on how to best use the limited resources. And where that’s concerned, Jan tends to have sharp opinions. I practically never interfere in the shooting, but I watch all the footage as we go along. Periodically, we discuss the footage and the progress of production, and I feel free to say exactly what I think. I recommend things, big and small. And sometimes, Jan will 'buy' one of my suggestions. Overall, I'd say, Jan's great strength, regardless of his method, is making everyone feel they are contributing to the film."

"Naturally, we experience conflicts of various degrees in the process. Personally, my problem was that it’s hard to say no to Jan, because he's both friendly and humble. And because he's stubborn. All of which make the conflicts harder. At times, I really have to pull myself together to say no to him and hold on, inside, to the need to defend the film – including parts we haven't come to yet that might need additional resources, too. Jan isn't always all that understanding about this. Still, our whole collaboration rests on a basic trust that ultimately we want the same thing. And an understanding that, once in a while, we have to take some battles – for the film's sake," Stenderup says.

What did you enjoy most working on this production?

"Basically, it's a huge pleasure to produce a film by a visual poet I admire enormously: being close to the creation of these 'everlasting moments'. Production-wise, it's a complicated film, and people went above and beyond the call of duty. The film is not quite done yet, but I'll go out on a limb and say I'm really happy about it," Stenderup says, "and well satisfied with the process of making it".

Maria Larssons evige oejeblik3 foto Nille Leander
"Everlasting Moments". Photo: Nille Leander

Facts

 

Jan Troell foto Nille Leander

Photo: Nille Leander

JAN TROELL


Born 1931, Sweden. One of the most important Scandinavian filmmakers. His best-known works are "The Emigrants" (1971), which earned Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay, and its sequel, "The New Land" (1972). The films were hailed collectively as the Swedish equivalent of "Gone With the Wind" and were notable for Troell's direct and humane treatment of his characters' plight. After a couple of American film assignments, "Zandy's Bride" (1974) and "Hurricane" (1979), Troell returned to Scandinavia and to Swedish history with "The Flight of the Eagle" (1982), a story of the failed 1897 balloon expedition to the North Pole undertaken by S.A. Andrée. Since then, Troell has made "Sagolandet" (1986), "Il Capitano" (1991), which won the Silver Bear in Berlin, "As White as in Snow" (2001) and, in 1996, the best example of a Scandinavian coproduction becoming a hit in all its local territories, the acclaimed Hamsun.

Thomas Stenderup foto Robin Skjoldborg

Photo: Robin Skjoldborg

THOMAS STENDERUP


Born 1954, Denmark. MD in Economics, 1981. Graduated as creative producer from the National Film School of Denmark in 1989. Teacher at the University of Copenhagen and Roskilde (1981-87). Chief editor of a weekly youth magazine, Transit, at the national broadcaster DR (1989-91). Secretary General of EU's Media Project for the Creative Documentary, an initiative of the MEDIA Programme under the European Community (1991-93). Created Final Cut Productions (1993). Head of Department and responsible for financial support of feature films and documentaries at the Danish Film Institute (1998-2001). Has been a member of the boards of Filmkontakt Nord, Danish Producers Association, The Council for Shorts- & Documentaries, Eurimages and Nordic Film- and Television Fund.

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