Exploring the Unknown

INTERVIEW. Director Hlynur Pálmason blends beauty with brutality in his debut feature "Winter Brothers," the result of a highly organic process. The story centres on two brothers working in a limestone quarry, focusing on the younger brother Emil and his hunger for love and acceptance. Premiere at Locarno and Toronto Film Festivals 2017.  

With his debut feature "Winter Brothers," writer/director Hlynur Pálmason has not just created a film, he's created a world.

I'm not just interested in following a story. I'm interested in the hidden things, the things that stimulate me. I'm sometimes interested more in what I don't know or what I feel is underneath.

"I think there was a world called 'winter brothers' that I was interested in," explains Pálmason. "I knew I had to have a beating heart or a core, and that was this theme of lack of love."

It was vital that he set his film in a contained universe. "I didn't want to create a dystopia or utopia, but something in between. To create a world so you could focus on primitive or simple feelings. I didn't want too much noise in the frame."

The ecosystem he created contains two brothers living in a small Danish town, working at dull jobs in a limestone factory, exploring their turbulent relations with coworkers and each other. He says this world is "beautiful and brutal at the same time."

"With the main protagonist, the younger brother Emil, I was exploring the want and the need to be desired. I wanted to depict all of this in a cinematic language," he says.  

"Winter Brothers" by Hlynur Pálmason. Photo: Masterplan Pictures

An Organic Process

Pálmason scouted for the right physical location to base these brothers and settled on Faxe, about two hours from Copenhagen, where they shot at a real limestone factory.

"I started finding a place where the story could be told, and I started writing and researching and finding the main characters. I went to the location many times to write the script," he explains. He let the story come to him organically as part of this whole world he was creating.

"Things were emerging in parallel. I wanted the narrative to be as important as movement and sound," explains Pálmason, who doesn't start writing based on plot points. "I don't have any thought-out statements. I would rather it be something I did not deliberately set out to say, but something I cannot avoid saying."

That organic feel carried through to the shoot. "While I'm shooting I'm not just interested in following a story. I'm interested in the hidden things, the things that stimulate me. I'm sometimes interested more in what I don't know or what I feel is underneath."

The Look of Limestone

The world of "winter brothers" in his head became a real place as the entire film was shot within a two-kilometer radius over six weeks. "This was very important for me to be able to shoot each scene in the right weather. I needed hundred per cent access to all locations 24-7."

The limestone factory became a pivotal location. "One of the gifts of the whole production was that we had a really good collaboration with the factory company," he says. "They were very accommodating and acted in the film as workers, they even allowed us to explode dynamite."

The limestone gives the film a unique visual identity. "I really loved the look and feel of the limestone material. Everything had this white yellowish patina," Pálmason explains.

Because he wanted to shoot on film, the director prepared well ahead. "In the beginning, we wondered if it would be colour or black and white, and considered all the possibilities. The project itself decided that 16mm would feel the most truthful. I think it's a beautiful format. It's naïve, fragile and also a bit gritty."

"Winter Brothers" by Hlynur Pálmason. Photo: Masterplan Pictures

Finding the Brothers

Casting was crucial to believe each brother as a unique human being but also interlinked with each other in a fraught relationship. "It's mostly about finding some kind of humanity in each character. It's very intuitive."

For the younger brother Emil, desperate for love, he cast Elliott Crosset Hove, who he met during film school. "I immediately fell in love with him and I knew, already back then, that he would play Emil in my debut," he says about Crosset Hove, who won the Best Actor Award at the film's world premiere at the Locarno Festival.

Once he had his Emil, he and casting director Rie Hedegaard decided on Simon Sears as the older brother. "I enjoyed seeing them together and was interested in filming them together. I went on location with them, and we experimented with things. We tried some dialogue, we walked around, we filmed and took photographs and talked, just trying to see if it was working. What works, works – you just have to see if it feels right."

They cast Lars Mikkelsen as the factory boss by simply sending him the script. Pálmason recalls:

"He read it and said, 'Jesus, this is crazy and I want to see where this goes.' I was just really happy that he saw a quality in it and was willing to explore it with us."

The actors closely stuck to the script, he says, but in a way that allowed for organic changes. "I try to be as thorough as possible in the process leading up to the filming to create a space where we are able to be perhaps just a little bit creative on set."

"Winter Brothers" by Hlynur Pálmason. Photo: Masterplan Pictures

The Move to Features

Pálmason's shorts, "A Painter" (his graduation film) and "Seven Boats" (selected for Toronto 2014), have been much acclaimed.He sees a kind of continuation from the shorts to his debut feature.

"They are very much in family with 'Winter Brothers.' I feel like it's an extension of the expression I've been working with.

"With my short films, I found an approach that worked for me and was stimulating," he continues. "I'm very obsessed with images and sound coming together, so basically I try to create a space within my daily routines where I can develop my projects with my collaborators. I think my drive in life and my work is the passion and the desire for exploring the unknown."

"Winter Brothers" is a Denmark-Iceland co-production, and he's proud the film has a very "Nordic blend."

"My producers are Danish and Icelandic, my cinematographer is Swedish, my sound designer is Norwegian and my editor is Danish."

The Iceland-born director, 32, moved to Copenhagen about seven years ago to attend the National Film School of Denmark, where he graduated in 2013.

"I look at it as a very positive experience. Before film school I had a huge problem being able to lift my vision. It was so heavy and difficult that my idea of going to the film school was 'collaboration.' I think you evolve through collaboration. It's too heavy when you're lifting alone, and I also think it's important to question your work and doubt the material. This comes very naturally when you have good collaborators."

"Winter Brothers" by Hlynur Pálmason. Photo: Masterplan Pictures

Ties to Iceland and Denmark

Pálmason met his key collaborators at film school: DoP Maria Von Hausswolff; editor Julius Krebs Damsbo; sound designer Lars Halvorsen; production designer Gustav Pontoppidan, composer Toke Odin, and producer Julie Waltersdorph Hansen of Copenhagen-based Masterplan Pictures.

Pálmason is happy to be making films in Denmark, but will be equally happy to shoot his next film, the mystery drama "A White White Day," in Iceland.

"At the moment I'm torn between two countries and it feels like a positive thing. Life is often a balance between family and work and now I'm also balancing between the countries that are shaping me and my work, trying to employ the qualities of both" •

About the film

"Winter Brothers" is written and directed by Hlynur Pálmason. The film is produced by Julie Waltersdorph Hansen and executively produced by Per Damgaard Hansen for Masterplan Pictures. Anton Máni Svansson is co-producing for Icelandic Join Motion Pictures.

The film has received production funding from the Danish Film Institute's talent programme New Danish Screen and co-production support from the Icelandic Film Center. New Europe Film Sales is handling international sales.

"Winter Brothers" was pitched at the annual networking event for Nordic film schools, Nordic Talents, in 2013 where it won the Special Mention Prize.

Festival premieres

"Winter Brothers" world premiered in competition at Locarno Festival (2-12 August), where Elliott Crosset Hove won the Best Actor Award.

The film is making its North American premiere at Toronto Film Festival in the Discovery programme (7-17 September).

Watch trailer