How do you move on after making a successful film like "The Monastery"? Finding a new film was a challenge for Pernille Rose Grønkjær after she won the Joris Ivens Award at IDFA in 2006 and was launched on a year-long tour of festivals with her tale of old Mr Vig and his dream of converting a ramshackle Danish castle into a monastery. When she finally touched back down in Danish reality, she started out by continuing "The Monastery’s" theme.
"Eliza is real and she draws on her own experiences. Her acting background made it possible to create an arc that moved the story forward."
"I had found another old man and started filming. But the moment I turned on the camera, I knew it was wrong for me. I had been there and was not curious. It felt like I was done with the theme for now. Luckily, my producer could see it, too, and she helped me find a new direction," Grønkjær says when we meet to discuss how she developed her new film, "Love Addict".
Grønkjær is a founder of the production company Danish Documentary, with producer Sigrid Dyekjær and fellow directors Eva Mulvad, Mikala Krogh and Phie Ambo. A huge advantage of sharing a base is having colleagues who know you well and want you to grow as a director, Grønkjær adds.
Eliza in "Love Addict". Photo: Danish Documentary Production.
The Dramaturgical Layer
For starters, Grønkjær put away her camera and let curiosity reign. The research phase initially was about different forms of dependency and gambling. Then she stumbled on an Arizona rehab centre that treated 'love addiction' and she knew it was a subject she couldn't ignore.
"I had never heard about the term 'love addict' before. Why does love for some people become a dependency? And do they really need treatment for it? I started collecting information from different therapists. I wanted to find a professional path into the material and avoid the tabloid angle of extreme cases."
Based on this extensive research, Grønkjær started considering a possible structure for her film. She called in the dramaturgical consultant Jens Arentzen, who also contributed to the script for "The Monastery", and they discussed how to make a thematic film with a large cast of characters feel like a single story is being told.
"'The Monastery' had the clear momentum of a project that would either succeed or fail. "Love Addict" is more about recognition."
She and Arentzen arrived at a solution where the film would track the progress of a single love addict, or of her dependency, if you will, via encounters with many different addicts.
"Along the way, the film would uncover a variety of aspects but viewed as a single process. Also, we wanted the audience to identify with the story from the get-go. The thematics has to grip you before the storylines intensify."
The Ethical Layer
As they batted around themes and dramaturgy, they decided to locate the film's core in the contemplations and insights that arise during the encounters with the people in the film. This then led to questions of the best way to film people to make the environments contribute to the storytelling. Where would they be discussing their experiences? Should they be filmed separately or together?
These reflections also touched on the film's ethical layer. How do you film people who feel bad about their dependency? The ethical discussions introduced the idea of staging certain scenes, which was put into play after Grønkjær met a young recovered love addict with acting experience. This was the motivation for adding a fictional layer to the film.
"Eliza is real and she draws on her own experiences. Her acting background made it possible to create an arc that moved the story forward. Also, I wanted to include the stalker element, but for moral reasons I didn't want to be hiding in the bushes with the camera. So, we could use Eliza's experiences to create something that's very close to reality, and that was really exciting to work with."
Tracy in "Love Addict". Photo: Danish Documentary Production.
The Visual Layer
A development grant from the Danish Film Institute, which made Grønkjær's extensive research and structuring of the film possible, allowed her to involve other creative parties to strengthen the visual format. This, for instance, enabled them to work in depth with the form of the interview situations and how they would blend reality and fiction. With her production designer, Niels Sejer, and her director of photography, Adam Philp, she developed a book of the film's visual strategies, exploring textures, colours and compositions for communicating moods like 'loneliness,' 'normality' and 'madness'.
For Grønkjær, it was a gift to have a production designer on a documentary and time for nuanced conversations about lighting with a skilled DP.
"The development work allowed us to create a common language before you start shooting and have to react quickly. The talks take root, so you have a much better idea of what you're looking for," Grønkjær says. She was thrilled, for instance, to have had detailed conversations about what she calls the film's fantasy layer, which includes a scene of a young girl in a forest looking for Prince Charming.
"When you talk with love addicts, you notice all the references to childhood. I wanted to include that as a layer in the film, also to offset the harshness of reality. We had to be careful not to make it too banal, so it was important to really think it through."
Adding yet another visual layer to the film, Eliza's storyline was inspired in part by the horror aesthetics of "The Blair Witch Project". But the bulk of "Love Addict" is based on people's day-to-day lives, and the filmmakers put a lot of energy into giving the interview sequences multiple layers as well. The frame for one interview, for example, a bench in Central Park, is redolent with the romance of Indian summer, even as the conversation is about a couple and the problems they are having. Other interview setups work with lighting to put a halo around words uttered in bulky American lounge furniture.
Looking back, Grønkjær was delighted with the development process for "Love Addict". "The Monastery", which she shot herself over a period of years, was a lonely process, so engaging in more dialogue has been constructive. And, Grønkjær adds, the early conversations about the film have been important not least in relation to working with a subject that requires you to tread carefully.