Warsaw 2015 Interview: SPARROWS Director Rúnar Rúnnarson On Finding God In The Sins of Men

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Warsaw 2015 Interview: SPARROWS Director Rúnar Rúnnarson On Finding God In The Sins of Men
Since its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Rúnar Rúnarsson's sophomore feature Sparrows (read Jason Gorber's review) has been on a successful streak, netting the top prize at the San Sebastian film festival, Silver Hugo at the Chicago Film Festival, and the best film and best screenplay awards in Sao Paulo. Ninety minutes after ScreenAnarchy sat with the director in Warsaw, Rúnarsson was handed an award from the competition for his debut and sophomore features, which he accepted, simply, with a humble "thank you". 

ScreenAnarchy: Why did you choose the title SPARROWS? 

Rúnar Rúnarsson: It was originally a working title and the main reason was the parallel with the protagonist, a young boy who sings. And they are both small and beautiful. Then I started to research on sparrows and I found out that a sparrow is a frequent metaphor in many religions, especially in Christianity, it's quite a big metaphor in the Bible and it represents purity, transition and youth. All these elements combine in the topic of the film. 

How did the idea for the film come about? 

This is my second feature. My debut feature was about older generation and now this one is about the younger one. I have done a lot of short films and they all have been either about younger or older generation. I love making the shorts and I will definitely continue in doing them. It´s like writing poetry, then you do a novel but you still keep writing the poetry. 

Nevertheless, they all are also pre-works for my features. After the shorts about older generations resulted in Volcano, all the shorts about younger generation were preparations for Sparrows. The transition from being young and innocent, this sort of a crossroad and entering the grey zone of adult life, this kind of transition was an inspiration for my many shorts, which eventually led to this feature. And I think everybody can relate to it. 

Why did you choose to approach the theme from the male angle? 

Well, I did shorts with female protagonists and, actually, my next film will revolve around a woman. A lot of stuff I write about I have a personal relation to. People I know and love but surely there is a quite a lot of fiction in it as well. But my stories tend to evolve. When I am writing, I work on different scripts at the same time which I use to do and eventually one took over the other one and becomes my next film. In case of Sparrows, I had two scripts in the making competing against each other. In one, the protagonist was a girl and young boy in the other one. So these two scripts merged together. Actually, sometimes I start writing about a woman and then towards the end I change the gender and other way around as well. Men become women and women become men. It gives an unexpected depth to the character. 

The girl in SPARROWS was the one from your other script? 

It´s more complicated than that but that´s not her. 

One of the film's themes is masculinity, if I am not mistaken. 

It's one of the themes. I always try to have my stories about more than one thing and masculinity is one as well as the generational gap is another, loss of innocence and loss in general. But yeah, masculinity is in that mix. 

Why did you find it worth of further investigating? 

It's valid. Half of the population is male and this is ongoing thing for men. The notion of masculinity affects our everyday lives take for example commercials, pornography and others, so it´s ongoing topic. Generally speaking, it is slowly changing in the western world, the modern man is coming and he is supposed to be more in balance with his feelings, be more expressive. 

On the other hand, they are also raised by old-fashioned men and the demand for modern man is there, most of them try to be emotionally open but they are still burdened by the luggage from their upbringing. So it´s really tough for them, sometimes they do not know on what foot to stand. So this issue of masculinity is really present and ongoing.

Did you pick the protagonist with his castrato-like voice to emphasize his innocence? 

In the first plane, it was use to underline the innocence but I have always wanted to integrate music into storytelling. I always work with the same composer Kjartan Sveinsson and musical passages were not really written into the narrative before so it was fun to work with choir pieces in the dramatic sense. I have decided that in my next film, which ended being Sparrows, I will integrate music. 

He sings religious songs and you mentioned Christianity before. 

The film is not about religion as it is about spirituality which does not apply solely to Christianity even though you are Christian that does not mean you cannot find the presence of God in his creations as the beautiful landscape or fragile souls but also in the ugly things, in sins of men and also the sacrifice of men. So the God is always ever-present, if you believe in him. 

Moving on to technical side, were child characters professional actors? 

I am always doing intensive castings, even for extras. Everybody is picked by me. I had several hundred kids coming in for the main roles. I known the main protagonist [Atli Oskar Fjalarsson] because I worked with him before, he has done one feature and some television work but he came to the casting as well. Most of them had zero camera experience and two had done something before but not much. 

What was the work with inexperienced actors for you? 

Every actor has some emotional range of what they are capable portraying of. This applies to educated actors and amateur actors. The fundamental difference is that the professionals have the tools to, so to say, fake it, to act, you see, not to be but to act whereas amateurs are never acting, they are always there and they do not have the tools to lie or to act, so they can only relate to something within them and portrait that. 

How did it go? 

Well, it is very difficult to find the right people. As soon as you have them and know their range. It´s as just working with any other actor. Every actor is individual, so I work with everyone separately, I do not apply one method or technique on all of them. I talk with them differently. 

How does the geography relate to the story? 

The themes I touch upon in the narrative can be found in most places in the world: father and son having hard time connecting, youth testing their limits playing on adults, adults playing on children as well, people being like birds with broken wings trying to function in life... So I think those themes are really universal. But not all the towns are like the one you see in the film, I am not saying that, but on the other hand, this not a specific town. What you see can happen at any place in the world. 

Stories should be more or less universal but also the nationality the film comes with certain nuances. How they react to different situations, different traditions and this is interesting when watching a foreign movie, to have this view of different societies widens your horizons and fiction has that power as well. It´s not reserved only for documentaries, telling the truth. 

Fiction can tell the truth as much as documentaries. It all mixes up and you have an author standing behind it portraying you the truth. Maybe it´s not the whole truth but fiction films treated with respect can be as valuable as documentaries regarding foreign cultures. So, it´s kind of a sister format. 

In addition to beautiful cinematography, the locations were well picked. Did you have to scout a lot? 

We shot in the region I know really well and I was writing the script actually there, so I had those places already in mind while writing. It´s up north, around 200 kilometers from Greenland and we shot there most of the film. I was visiting those places regularly as I wrote along my team a long before we started shooting. 

Besides the sparrows as a symbol, did you have to conduct a particular research for the story? 

No. I am always in the research. My whole life is my research and the people that I love. And even when I am writing and facts I am not sure of pop up, I first finish my work, my version of truth and just after that I would verify whether it´s true in the practical sense. I am fixing it afterwards rather than stopping my creative flow. 

Did you happen to change something in the process of shooting compared to script? 

Sure, change happens always. I do improvisations with actors as well as scenes that were not written.

How that did that happen?

I realize I do not really need the scene maybe something happens in the next scene representing the same thing making the previous one obsolete, so I prioritize differently. All of sudden, I see a baby seal in the next town, so on our way there, I write the scene because it´s nice to have this opportunity to work with a baby seal. 

Me and my DoP [Sophia Olsson], we start working many months ahead of the principal photography, working on storyboards and also sound designer comes in quite early, three months before the shooting, going around the locations to prepare the audionarrative. Together we prepare storyboards, we act through the scenes, take pictures of them, draw them and then we rewrite it couple times over. Ultimately, we end using maybe 50% percent of the material we constructed for the narrative during the shooting. You know, problems come up always but opportunities as well. But our constructive approach makes us come up with solutions easier and faster. 

Did you have the major plotlines penned down before developing the script? 

No. I do not believe in treatments. You have heard my method before, I collect pieces and when they start to resemble a storyline, I sit down and write. For me, it´s crucial that when I write the first draft, I write it all the way through to the end because to be able to construct time, you have to sense it yourself. 

All of my first drafts are really written in a tight time but there are many months of preparations behind them. All of my favorite scenes are conceived this way. You know one thing leads to another and then I pen down the dialogues. But to develop a treatment and write about what the characters will be talking is such clinical. I cannot work like that, I do not sense anything. I that way am just being clever and sensitive. 

How many rewrites did you do? 

That´s hard to tell. It´s hard to pin the number down because then I work with commissioning editors and my team, so when they come up with something, we put it down. But I can say with clear conscious, it does not materialize into completely different film from my original vision on the first draft. My first draft is then just polished and that process can take also some time. If I do not achieve it after the first rewrite, I put it in a drawer and start working on something else since I was not enlightened during the writing. 

Watching SPARROWS is an intensive experience but the film is never overly dramatic neither explicit. 

Yes, this is the approach we devised through the time. I have been working with the same team more or less for many years. And this is how we portray films, people, stories together. We have realistic approach to filmmaking but some people are saying it is also documentaristic. But you know, it cannot be only social realism all the time and we try to achieve also poetic realism. In both, our visual and audio approach, we are taking expressionistic decisions but we try to integrate them more naturally, so they are not so in-your-face style. 

Did you encounter any hiccups during the shooting? 

Sure, many of them. My knee gave in and I had to go to surgery so I had to travel around on a wheelchair [Laughs]. If not everyday than several times a day situations happen that need to be resolved. That´s something to be always expected and the better you are prepared, the better solutions you find. For example, the more you know your team, the easier becomes to find a solution to a problem. As I explained earlier, the better you are prepared, the easier you fix whatever needs to be fixed, whether it concerns story, narrative, visual or sound issues. You can have a set of tools prepared beforehand you can apply when needed. 

Are there any filmmakers that influenced you? 

Sure. When I was 16 years old, I saw Tarkovsky´s Stalker and something happened to me. I did not understand the film. I still do not understand it but even despite that, I watch it every two years. It has been a great source of inspiration and how he constructs the time that had big influence on me. The work they did together, the humanistic approach of Andreas Dresn, a wonderful German director, and there is some much love and respect he has for his characters that just shines through, Bergman´s dramas. So they all inspired me in one way or another. Hopefully, there is still some originality in my work. 

Well, you have been called one of the most promising upcoming directors, so there surely is. How do you respond to such proclamation? 

You see that I have grey hair so I cannot be that talented. [Laughs] 

What about your next project? 

I am actually working on more one script and it´s always the same process. I have my own method. I stand by a river and I am throwing stones into the river and my goal is to get to the other side and when I can jump in between the stones to get on the other shore, just then I know I have my script and write it down. So I am now throwing stones into the river for various drafts and we will see which one will prevail when I get to the other side. 

Maybe it will be about older generation now?

I do not really know since I have several of these drafts, about my generation, about the one above it. It´s hard to tell which one will come out on the top.
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