What happens between people when they don't say anything? Or when the focus is less on the actual lines than on what happens between them? As a director, Birgitte Stærmose has explored this territory in such awardwinning shorts as "Small Avalanches" and "Sophie".
"I have always been fascinated by hotels as a secret place outside of time and space. What happens behind all those closed doors?"
More recently, she won a Special Mention at the Berlin Film Festival for "Out of Love", a short film inhabiting the space between documentary and fiction. Filmed in Kosovo, "Out of Love" had children from Pristina tell stories of their loss, fear and hope, with the post-war-ravaged city as both a poetic and gloomy presence.
Stærmose is making her debut as a feature film director with an atmospheric story, "Room 304", which deftly condenses the world and its complicated relationships into a microcosm in which anything can happen – or can have happened. From the very first frame, blood and a single gunshot loom large in the narratively inventive story featuring an impressive cast of Danish and international stars.
MULTITUDE OF STORYLINES
"Room 304" takes place in a Copenhagen hotel over three fateful days. The ensemble includes the bereaved owner of the hotel (Mikael Birkkjær) and his wife (Trine Dyrholm), a lonely flight attendant (Ariadna Gil), a dishwasher (Luan Jaha) and his wife (Ksenija Marinkovic) who are seeking revenge for past crimes, the lovelorn hotel manager (StineStengade), and a staff member (David Dencik), who is struggling to smile more at the front desk. Their lives are entangled when they are forced to make momentous decisions.
For Birgitte Stærmose, the idea for the film began with a desire to do a film that plays with time and uses a multitude of characters to explore questions of intimacy and forgiveness.
"I was drawn to telling a multi-plot story with extended scenes containing all the qualities of a chamber play,"the director says. "The idea was to have different storylines following people who, up to that point, have had strategies for living their lives. The film explodes those strategies, and the characters are forced to change and behave accordingly. I like the ability of multi-plot films to really explore a theme. All the storylines in Room 304 revolve around intimacy, forgiveness and frailty in the people we meet."
SLEEPING IN THE SAME BEDS
Stærmose and her co-writer Kim Fupz Aakeson quickly settled on a hotel as an attractive, secretive framework for bringing people together.
"I have always been fascinated by hotels as a secret place outside of time and space,"she says. "What happens behind all those closed doors? A hotel is at once extremely intimate and strangely anonymous. You're away from home and trying to create anartificial space that is pressed into serving as a private space. You're so close to other people, sleeping in the same beds that other people just slept in."
One storyline was written specifically for Luan Jaha, a local actor Stærmose met when she was making "Out of Love" in Kosovo. The other characters and situations grew out of what she and Aakeson personally wanted to see in a film.
"In some way you are always making films for yourself first," the director says. "The films I like are films that provoke me visually and make me feel something. I often can't remember the endings of films I've seen, but I remember how I sensed them, how they made me feel – the look, the mood, the acting. As a director, I'm more involved in how things are said than in what is said. I want to explore the characters' vulnerabilities and be surprised."
Lourdes Faberes and Ksenija Marinkovic in "Room 304". Framegrab
EIGHT DIFFERENT LANGUAGES
The many non-Danish actors give "Room 304" a distinctly international feel. Personally, Stærmose doesn't consider herself to have a "non-Danish"approach to filmmaking. She simply thrives in international settings.
"My everyday life is very Danish, but I take to international contexts like a fish to water, perhaps because I lived abroad for some years,"she says. "Directing "Out of Love" in Albanian and "Room 304" in eight different languages, I realized that I can workin any language. It's not hard to understand people's intentions and feelings even if you don't understand the words that are spoken. I work with a sixth sense, I intuit and feel."
The film's visual style was developed in close collaboration with the New York-based Croatian DP Igor Martinovic, focusing on the composition of the image as a co-narrator and on a visually subjective style.
"This was my first time working with Igor. It was a rewarding experience, but we also spent a lot of time together watching and discussing films. We talked a lot about composition and framing with negative space, about playing around with subjectivity and focus, and telling about what you don't see based on the notion that it's there the excitement often lies, what makes the audience watch."
BETWEEN THE LINES
The visual concept was developed over five weeks, and Stærmose describes the shoot as extremely well prepared overall. Nevertheless, there is more to preparation than just having all the answers. It's about laying a solid foundation that gives you the luxury of allowing things to evolve on set.
"What's in front of the camera must have life. When I work with actors, I always hope they will surprise me. That we, as a team, will surprise ourselves. I'm there to be gripped by emotion."
The life, Stærmose says, grows out of everything that happens in between the written lines. The main task for a director in many ways is to bring forth all the things that aren't in the script.
"When you are interested, as I am, in the secret and the intimate, you have to allow it some space. I want to get a glimpse into the soul through my films, to go deeper into people than we usually go. If you want to get close to things, you have to leave room for doubt and vulnerability. That's when a film gets really interesting."