I was settling into my afternoon, the sun at its highest point in Toronto, when Jonas Matzow Gulbrandsen popped onto Skype.
The physical window inside the virtual chat window, showed the sun was just starting to set in Norway. Separated in time and space for the moment, and using modern technology to talk classical folk tales seemed apropos for Gulbrandsen’s debut feature, Valley of Shadows. The film is programmed into the Discovery section of TIFF for its World Premiere, and a discovery it is indeed.
It is the tale of a young boy who ventures into the forest to find answers. Sheep are being mysteriously slaughtered in his coastal village. His dog has disappeared. So has his older brother. The police and the farmers have no answers. His best friend suspects a were-wolf.
The film has a confident, surreal tone that very subtly plays with time and space and reality. It completely blew me away, even (especially?) at 9 in the morning, during its press screening. (Continuing the run of screenings in the karmically-blessed Lightbox 4 auditorium - don't ask, just accept that this is true, see more films on this screen, it is haunted.)
Thus, I was pretty excited to dig a little deeper into the ideas and craft of the film, which is quite rich on both fronts, with the director. And he was pretty excited to talk about his first feature. What followed was a jittery-quick 45 minute burst of conversation, pausing occasionaly due to bandwidth constraints, which covered wide bit of ground ground, with multiple digressions and tangents, on audiences, influences, intentions and technical formalisms.
To rope this high energy back-and-forth into something manageable (and, ahem, *spoiler*-free), the conversation has been edited for clarity and flow.
KH: Congrats on getting your film into Toronto.
JMG: It has been a strange journey for the film, it started out with no budget, it almost felt like we were fighting a war to get it made for several years, and now we have ended up at TIFF.
It certainly does not look like a no-budget film.
Much of the war involved fighting with the weather and the environment, to get the look of the film exactly right. It became kind of the philosophy of the filmmaking. Waiting for the right cloud, and the right atmosphere to shoot.
There is something to be said for natural lighting. And you shot this on 35mm. This is unusual at this moment, for a debut film.
Yes. Digital is almost as good, almost. But for this film, we needed the right texture. Maybe in 30 years, or 10, or 5. I don’t know. But for now, it is still not there for me.
Is it that the primordial forest, at the heart of the film, that needs to have an older, traditional look?
It is an entity, in the meta-sense. That was the idea of the whole thing. I love Michael Mann a lot, and how he uses digital. It is really cool and really smart. But his is an urban environment, and it is really gritty. It feels like he uses the format unconsciously, and is still the best at it.
What I am saying, is that when I think of a project, the aesthetic of what it is going to be, and how you plan it is important. 35mm is organic for the forest in this film. At the moment, if you worship big images - Kurosawa, Ford, P.T. Anderson kind of images - then film is still it.
There are several shots in VALLEY OF SHADOWS where the characters in the film are tiny dots in the corner of the frame against a large, imposing forest. As if to say, "how tiny we are next to the awesomeness of nature." When a movie can offer that observation, simply, visually, in a single image. It goes a long way in communicating as a filmmaker. Another shot in the film, you use it several times, that of a close-up of the full moon dissolving into a matching shot of Aslak’s head. Could you comment on your choice of framing and storytelling.
I really interested in subconsciousness and point of view. I am fascinated with a child’s point of view. We tried this out in 2009 with our short film, Darek. But with this film, I wanted to go all the way with getting into the consciousness of a small boy. Especially the age of 6 or 7, when you are not that conscious of the world, and mix up what is happening with fantasy and dreams.
I think bringing ambiguity - this is a very important word for me - I am not really aiming for a magic realism, but rather mixing up reality and dreams, and not knowing whether things are inside is head or really happening at all. So, when we started figuring out shots, that was the thing.
I also love these dissolves. It is really an old-school kind of tool. I like how Victor Sjöström’s films The Wind and The Phantom Carriage use dissolves. Older cinema uses this kind of a fade in a way that is very different from digital effects. We combined this with close-ups of Aslak sleeping, we wanted to create associations with his inner mind, and his creation of the universe. We wanted the audience to participate in that.
A series of rhyming images, visual motifs, can become a handshake between the storyteller and the audience. In a way, it is a signal, an unconscious one, that I (being in the audience) can simply let go and let the film wash over me. Because I am in good hands.
I like to tell things visually, and subtly feed the audience. This is in the European tradition of not being scared if the audience completely understands where they are or not. I think many films under-estimate their audiences’ intelligence and ability. When I go into a film and I think the director is spoon-feeding everything, I feel that is disrespecting me. I think when you give less, the film becomes bigger. Someone described this to me as ‘a 1970s way thinking about film’ but I really think that is just how it works.
My brother [Marius Matzow Gulbrandsen, the cinematographer] and I started experimenting with how expressionistic we were going to go. The camera angles and the close-ups were very important, to stay close inside Aslak’s head. My brother and I are a team, and I believe that the cinematographer and director should be on the same level.
We discuss everything. Concept and shape and form. We went to Polish film school and down there you work very closely with cinematographers from the very beginning. You may have noticed how many cinematographers are Polish. I believe you can tell when a director works very closely with their cinematographer, and I like that tradition. And writing in terms of cinematography is how we think in terms of making films. Some day maybe things will be different, but right now it is what I enjoy.
The movie feels like Aslak’s quest is for ‘forbidden knowledge.’ Not knowing what is happening is so intrinsic to his journey. Because you have such a stationary camera set-up that he will wander into and out of the frame, like tiny little chapters, or tiny little self-contained universes.
Gates, passages, all these things. It is all very mythical to me. I have always been fascinated with that Charles Dickens’ kind of fatalism, the way he controls his characters like puppets, like there is some kind of bigger thing at play. I was inspired by that kind of feeling. Almost like there is an exterior force acting on Aslak. Some sort of hand or push that accumulates over his journey. It is dangerous to talk about these things too much. I will stop here.
I think of it as growing up. We can only go forward with time. I look at VALLEY OF SHADOWS as a very hopeful, even aspirational, coming-of-age story. If we can achieve some kind of acceptance in ways that are not always understandable or clear, that feels deeply mature to me.
It is very true what you say. In many ways. Aslak’s journey is for unanswered questions. This is why I like films that treat children very seriously - because naiveté meeting brutality opens up life. I like fairy tales and fables because they are coming-of-age stories with darkness and are very edgy, in some ways, compared to how we tell stories today.
There is this writer from the 1970s, Bruno Bettelheim, who takes a very analytical view, the deep psychology, of fairy tales. What purpose they serve, and why you see so many similarities across so many of these stories. And why it is very important for children to learn about these stories, somehow. I wanted to explore this kind of dark ‘Hansel & Gretel’ world in a modern setting. When you put [modern] cynical and naive side by side, I think there is a lot of discovery.
When you are a kid, and adults are busy, you have all this time. And everything feels really long, summers last forever, seemingly. One thing that struck me in the middle of watching this is how the film also feels that way.
Remember when you were a kid and you went sneaking around the house when you were not allowed? I like those moments. The top of the staircase becomes important, and certain rooms of the house become important. We wanted to take that time, not be too pragmatic about getting from one scene to the next, but really try to feel how it is to be a boy again.
Even going from one house to another at that age is its own little journey. The first time you were allowed to go away from your parents. The bigger, possibly more dangerous, world. Focusing on those kind of things really fascinated me. And certainly it is very a big thing when you are trespassing for the first time.
It was a major score to get Zbigniew Priesner to do the music for the film. Can you talk a bit about integrating his sound into the visuals? I found the film often foregrounds the score, and often the music seems to completely disappear.
One thing that Zbigniew Preisner did was to offer 'a dialogue of emotion' with his score for Aslak. He really enhances the scene, and integrates well with the emotions. We worked a lot on the mix. I have never used score for a film before. But I knew that this one needed a score. It needed to be a big score, but one that tells the interior life of the character.
We sent him the film and he liked it. I don’t know what we would have done without him. I think his melancholy tones really go in hand with the images. This was his first try at electronic sounds. And for him I think it was a little bit radical. He is a genius at what he does.
You do get the sense that the film is holding its breath, that the score is holding it there. The magic happens right at that point.
There are many significant unknowns for Aslak. The forbidden forest, his older brother, the killer of sheep. There are several moments where you see Aslak tries to understand, or penetrate these unknowns. But there are times where you can sense a kind of deep satisfying acceptance. This struck me as highly unusual, and I was wondering if you could comment on that.
I am very happy with that un-traditional aspect. It is more novella than novel. I wanted there to be presence. Freud said, “dreams are a subconscious wish.” Aslak has an unfulfilled need for something. Is it for answers? And how much? It is there, and that is the whole point, like a search for lost time.
Scandinavian Gothic. Could you elaborate?
There is an underlying dread, a psychological stress of living in the rural countryside; being surrounded by vast nature. And the wilderness becomes a stand in for their inner feeling. Scandinavian Gothic is not a well known term, but there is a lot of literature. It not been widely discovered, but we wanted to take it further put it into cinematic terms.
The books are often quite kitschy, especially modern, but the older ones, are kind of like horror movies, but not quite. But nature is extremely important, similar to American Southern Gothic.
Yes. I am reminded of the river scene in NIGHT OF THE HUNTER.
Night of the Hunter is up there with some of the best films in the world, and Way Down East, the film that inspired Laughton, particularly the river scene. Both are very special to me. I like rivers, they are mythical, like a right of passage, and all that. Our ‘river scene’ is a long scene, but I wanted to let it flow. Space and time and pause. The pauses are extremely important. Films too often are so much about rushing to get to the plot. I prefer the consciousness of the camera.
Here, we made the film, and even cut the trailer, to have the type of film that I would want to see myself. This is what I really love about filmmaking, and this is really what directors only can do. Everything I miss about the types of films I love, is what we tried to put in here.