"I'm fascinated by people running," Natasha Arthy says. "It's such a dynamic thing. For my protagonist Aïcha, it's also symbolic. She's trying to run away from reality, from facing herself. And she runs because she’s young, of course, and has ants in her pants. If you knew how many running scenes the film had before we cut it down!"
"Fighter's" kung fu choreography is non-bloody, disciplined and distinguished by a tremendous sense of aesthetics. If the scenes bring to mind films like "Crouching Tiger", "Hidden Dragon", that's hardly a coincidence. Xian Gao, the Chinese kung fu master who worked on "Crouching Tiger", trained the actors and choreographed the martial arts for "Fighter". He also appears in the film as Aïcha's instructor, Sifu.
FIGHT INSTEAD OF DIALOGUE
For Natasha Arthy, it's more natural to tell a story in pictures than in words. She helped pen the screenplay for her new teen film "Fighter" – together with co-writers Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg – but visual storytelling is what grabs her. For that reason also, it was clear to her very early on that kung fu would be an important element in the film.
"It's fun to have a fight instead of dialogue," the Danish filmmaker says.
"When there is choreography in a scene, you have something visual going on. If you just show two people sitting in chairs talking, you might as well be doing radio. A fight is a very dynamic thing to shoot. Making "Fighter" was very gratifying, because it’s such a physical film. It lends itself to visual storytelling.
"Fighter" is about Aïcha, 17, the daughter of Turkish immigrants in Copenhagen. Her big passion is kung fu. She is highly skilled at it and practices intensively. But when her father finds out that she is being moved up to a co-ed team and will be fighting men, he forbids her to practice her sport. Though she feels guilty about it, Aïcha continues practicing on the sly. At practice, she meets a young Danish guy and falls in love, compounding her inner turmoil. Soon, rumours are buzzing in the Turkish community and Aïcha's choices turn out to have unexpected consequences, not just for herself but for her entire family.
Arthy mentions "Run Lola Run" and "Billy Elliot" as inspirations for her film: "I wanted to combine Lola's energy with "Billy Elliot's" coming-of-age story," she says. "The first time I saw Lola, I left the theatre out of breath and completely wired like I wanted to go out and save all kinds of people. It’s an amazing film, which I have seen many times since, and I kept it at the back of my mind when I was making "Fighter"."
"Fighter's" kung fu choreography is non-bloody, disciplined and distinguished by a tremendous sense of aesthetics. If the scenes bring to mind films like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", that's hardly a coincidence. Xian Gao, the Chinese kung fu master who worked on "Crouching Tiger" trained the actors and choreographed the martial arts for "Fighter". He also appears in the film as Aïcha's instructor, Sifu.
"The premise was to make a coming-of-age story, not a karate film," Arthy says. "I wanted to use martial arts as a form of storytelling. Violence isn't the point at all. We focused on employing the gracefulness of kung fu, how the fighters almost seem to be dancing, as in "Crouching Tiger". The moves become a mode of conversation."
From the time she wrote the first outline more than four years ago, Arthy knew martial arts were a part of the story.
"I wanted to do the story of a female protagonist breaking away, without using words," Arthy says. "Her fighting is also an effective contrast to feminine stereotypes. Very early in my research, I met Semra Turan, who plays Aïcha, on the Web and at karate events. She has a fascinating way of fighting. She's petite, very beautiful and feminine, but really tough. I auditioned a lot of other girls, but no one else came close. I wrote the script with her and another girl, who does taekwondo, in mind."
ENTHRALL ED BY KUNG FU
Three years ago Arthy shifted the film into high gear. At the time, she had Aïcha doing karate, as Turan does in real life. But then Arthy met Xian Gao. His charisma and experience convinced Arthy that he was just right for Fighter, and she fast became enthralled by kung fu.
"I was taken in by the philosophy behind kung fu," Arthy says. "In brief, it's about finding your inner core, becoming conscious of your strengths and weaknesses, and being honest. I also think kung fu is a lot more beautiful to film than karate. Kung fu has bigger, rounder, more open movements. Karate is choppier, with smaller, harder movements. We let Semra keep the hardness of karate and added kung fu elements. Martial arts in movies are generally a gumbo of taekwondo, kung fu, kickboxing and karate. For a specialist, it's easy to spot the mix, but I consciously took authorial liberties in the film’s use of martial arts. Fighter is not a documentary about kung fu but a teen film with a kung fu element."
Gao trained the actors in the film, both those with martial arts experience and the novices, including the male lead, Cyron Melville. Arthy developed the fight scenes with Gao and her DP, Sebastian Winterø.
"Sebastian and I made a book for Gao, describing the mood of each fight – emotional and dramatic guidelines for what each combatant brings to the scene mentally. Where the characters were emotionally at the start and end of each fight scene, and what I had in mind for the scenes in terms of frustration, love, anger, etc. Based on those guidelines, Gao choreographed the individual scenes. Then Sebastian gave him our comments, and Gao made whatever changes were necessary," Arthy says.
Shooting took two months in all, in segments distributed across a six-month period. In between shooting, the actors would practice kung fu and rehearse the choreography. As a lot of the cast were first-time actors, they also attended a series of workshops with acting coach Sara Boberg."Quite a few of the actors had no prior acting experience, so I wanted them to feel secure around each other and work as a group, plus they had to have confidence in me. Sara Boberg taught them the Meisner technique, which is basically about honing your ability to listen and react to what's being said."
"In several ways, it was a big advantage for me as a director to work like that. While the actors went through series of exercises and improvisations that had nothing to do with the film, I could sit back and watch them and be inspired to bring elements from the exercises into the film. It helped us break the built-in stereotypes of typecasting."
"Fighter". Photo: Sebastian Winterøe
NOTHING IS EVER THAT EASY
Both the young and the old players of Turkish background doubled as cultural consultants on the film. Arthy wanted "Fighter" to be credible down to the smallest detail.
"For me, the script wasn't finished until we had played it through and the actors had commented, as in, 'Listen, he would never react like that …' We changed some scenes and added others. Sometimes it was a detail, how someone is dressed or serves tea. Everything was discussed – I was extremely attentive to the cultural aspects," the director says.
"It would have been a real shame if the film had looked like it was made by a Dane with naïve Danish eyes, going, 'Go ahead, follow your heart, piss all over your mom and dad. It's your life, live it!' Nothing is ever that easy. A lot of young second-generation immigrants are more dependent on their families than ordinary 'ethnic Danes' are. That's important to keep in mind and appreciate," Arthy says.
Having to rewrite scenes on set Arthy never thought of as pressure. In fact, she considered it a positive opportunity.
"I rewrote the script and made changes on set, and I felt really good about it," she says. "Rewriting is a lot easier than trying to push something through that doesn't work. Then you just end up tearing your hair out in the editing room. In the way I work I swing back and forth between order and chaos, chaos and order. It feels very natural to me to find a balance between controlling and letting go. And of course, a lot of things happen in the editing room. A lot of scenes didn't make it into the final cut. My editor, Kasper Leick, worked on the film for six months and cut it down from two and a half hours to 100 minutes. Thankfully, Kasper is a calm and embracing person, and he had to be, because I would start panicking about time running out."
"HEY, MAYBE HE DID HAVE A POINT!"
Arthy describes herself as someone who works intuitively and visually, which has its pros and cons. Her collaboration with her DP, Sebastian Winterø, was both rewarding and contentious.
"We are so different," Arthy says. "I can sometimes be fairly diffuse, because I have to feel my way forward, and that can take time, while he is very specific. Our differences produced an insane amount of arguments. It was hard at times. But I think they were productive discussions. We pushed and provoked each other, and we both grew from it. We are very stubborn people who like to be in charge, so it can really push your boundaries when you have to realise that, 'Hey, maybe the other person did have a point!' Sebastian is a lot wilderthan I am. He constantly nudged me to take things as far as they would go, especially in terms of grading, and for that I am deeply thankful.
"Of course, we have a lot of things in common, too. We both love working with the contrast between close-ups and long shots, and we are both very visually oriented in our storytelling styles. We had never worked together before, and it was important to find common visual ground from the outset. Both of us, separately, were captivated by "City of God" by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund. It's so raw and gorgeous, and has an amazing story. So we found common ground in the look of that film. It became a jumping-off point in terms of "Fighter's" colours and textures," Arthy says.
"Fighter's" look is grainy and raw, in part because it was shot on 16 mm. A greenish, golden-brown colour-grading underscores the urban atmosphere, the idea of young runaways. The film is generally kept in a realistic style broken by a recurring dream, a symbolic scenario, where Aïcha fights a hooded ninja. The dream changes depending on how Aïcha is doing in real life.
"With the ninja scenes, I wanted to show that, though it may seem that Aïcha’s foes are her father, or others in the Turkish or Danish community, she's really battling herself more than anyone else," Arthy says. "The ninja is a fantasy element that can be construed as Aïcha's dark or unknown side. I wanted to visualise Aïcha's inner struggle. When you’re fighting yourself, the things you don’t want to face can take some very frightening forms. That’s Aïcha's big challenge. She wants to run away from everything, but obviously that's bound to fail. She has to find the courage to stop and face the situation, make up her mind about what she has to do, find herself without losing the people she loves".