July 24, 2005|I sat down with Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland over a cranberry muffin and a cup of coffee in one of the subterranean meeting rooms of Denver's Hotel Monaco. Moland, in town for an early sneak of his The Beautiful Country (a long-simmering Terrence Malick project produced by the maverick filmmaker and released this month in the United States to some critical fanfare), has been a favourite of mine since I happened across his blistering Zero Kelvin close to ten years ago. And though I tried to introduce as many people as I could to that film and its follow up, Aberdeen (both starring the incomparable Stellan Skarsgård), I confess there was something wonderful about feeling like one of an underground band's handful of fans. So the relative visibility of The Beautiful Country is bittersweet: a validation of a kind, but one that comes with an irrational proprietary jealousy. You want your heroes to do well, but at the same time you fear that now that they're gaining momentum, they're going to end up like John Woo. With The Beautiful Country, Moland has created a solid refugee drama that, while breaking no significant new ground (it's probably the least of his films so far), at least does nothing to dishonour his work in his native Norway. Erudite in heavily-accented English, Mr. Moland is at a place now where he's still surprised that anyone's seen his other pictures. And for however long that lasts, that's just how I like it.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: Tell me about your time dropped into '70s American culture, studying at Emerson College.
HANS PETTER MOLAND: The first time I came, it was as an exchange student. I found it very liberating to be in Boston, I learned an awful lot [there] and more in New York for a while after I graduated. Truthfully, in retrospect just being in this country during the '70s and what's turned out to be something of the Golden Age in American film, had a tremendous influence on me. There was an atmosphere of possibility here, of experimentation--an openness to our playing with grand ideas, to try and fail amongst others doing the same. We were trying to change the world and we felt like we could do it with art. How quaint. (laughs) When I graduated I felt like I hadn't learned anything practical, you know, I was a late bloomer, a dreamer, but with time you begin to appreciate your education. My training in film direction was extremely formal, but without that basis I feel like you're not limber enough to do some of the more personal things that you want to do--that you almost can't develop a style without a strong foundation in basic filmmaking. I think that's true of a lot of the arts, especially for those of us that aren't geniuses.
Your admiration for the film of the American '70s grooves with Terrence Malick picking you to take over this project from him.
It does. I wouldn't say that I have a lot of heroes, but when Malick calls you on the phone, you answer it. He's one of the few people who I've truly admired from a distance--he has qualities in his film that are so unique but for as distinctive as his pictures are, you never get the feeling that he's trying to be fancy stylistically, he's not showing off in any way. For as careful as his films are, you feel as though there's still at work there something totally unpretentious. He's never trying to impress you with his language or with his compositions, but neither is he disrespectful of the craft of making a movie.
He's an underestimated actor's director, too.
I agree totally--he strikes chords in human nature that very few people manage to touch. I saw Badlands in film school and was devastated by it, I'm still mesmerized by it. They're beacons to filmmakers. To be able to have him as a producer was an amazing honour.
Was he on set?
No. We worked an awful lot before shooting started on getting the script together, on getting philosophies sorted out and strategies, logistics, all of that--but once we actually got on location in Vietnam, no. There were four producers total and we were working with really a shoestring budget so there wasn't much time once we set off from shore. We were in constant contact, though.
Was it trouble to have so many moneymen?
I can't say that there was trouble--there's always some difficulty when you work with people with strong opinions, but the scope of this project for what we had to work with financially almost dictated that people chose a role and stuck with it. It was as streamlined as making a movie could be, really, and everyone ultimately was on the same page even though they all had distinct qualities that they brought to the project. It could have been a big mess, and it did keep me on my toes, but all is well.
Compare for me your style with Malick's style.
(laughs) Is there a comparison?
I think so. Malick must have thought so, too--starting with your use in Zero Kelvin and Aberdeen of an omnipresent, allegorical almost, nature.
Well, I think I work intuitively a lot more than with any sort of design. Long before I shoot--sometimes before I even start writing or working on a particular project--I have an idea of blocking and physical movement that will inform relationships. In Aberdeen for instance, I drove people mad looking for just the right locations that would house the movements that I had in my head for these two people even before I knew who these people were, you know. I had an image of them and their relationship that works underneath the narrative and that's expressed with physical space, physical distance. More, though, the place that we are physically affects how we act. If we sit in a room a third of this size with no air conditioning, it would affect our conversation--and now look, here we are in a large conference room at a large table and yet we're sitting here at the end, close, and that affects things between us as well.
(laughs) A lot of that, I'm afraid--we have so little time to interact with one another on these PA tours, we sit here and people are rotated through and all we ever see of a town are the insides of hotel rooms, the insides of airports, and members of the press who, most of them, ask us the same things.
Can you tell me how you began your two-film collaboration with Stellan Skarsgård?
We met when I asked him to be in Zero Kelvin and he came in and told me that he had five criteria for working on a film and that he'd do it if three of them were met: he had to have a good editor, a good script, director, producer, DP and cast--and I told him that he had four out of five out the gate so it didn't matter if I was terrible. So we became great friends during the shoot...
It's the kind of shoot that would engender close friendships, I'd guess.
Definitely true--the conditions were challenging to say the least, and afterwards we vowed to each other that we really had to work together again immediately and just five years later we did. (laughs)
|Bai Ling in The Beautiful Country|
Did shooting on location in Vietnam for The Beautiful Country hinder your ability to find the precise landscapes you wanted?
It did present its own set of problems, of course, but you know, Vietnam is an extraordinarily beautiful place, full of postcard tableaux offset by a lot of really filthy, rundown places, so there were a great many disparate and exciting textures that I had to work with. It was really gratifying to stretch out that way, too, to leave sort of my comfort zone in Norway and go out to Vietnam and to Texas and to have a whole new vocabulary to work in.
Can you give me a specific example?
Well, the streets there are so crowded--there are so many people in Vietnam, it seems like, and so there's a scene where an old, one-legged woman is looking after the boy, Tam, and she has him on a tether while this mass of people are walking by them. And you don't have to be from there to understand intuitively where this leash comes from. You understand that it's the environment that makes it--it would mean something entirely different if it was an abandoned main street in the middle of Texas and there was an old woman with a little boy on a leash.
America still has a pretty bad Vietnam War hangover--were you daunted by it in taking on this project?
One of the many challenges of making this film for me was in learning about things that I didn't know before I started. I can't say that I have a full understanding of the American psyche as it pertains to your Vietnam War, it would be presumptuous of me to say that I did--and during the planning and the shooting of the picture, I think that I shied away from getting too involved in what I didn't understand. I tried, instead, to look for things that were understandable for if not everyone at least for me: being ostracized in your community for your heritage was something that I knew of in Norway--the women who had interactions with occupying German soldiers and, sometimes, the children that they had with them were completely, unjustly, ostracized. So I took that as a way to access this function of an occupying nation that leaves behind these psychic remnants of their intrusion.
Any commentary embedded in there about America's invasion of Iraq?
War leaves such huge scars, permanent ones sometimes. I mean, I was born many years after the end of WWII but the presence of the war was always a part of my childhood--my father, my grandfather was imprisoned for a while... In a broad, more philosophical sense, war is so horrible that it needs to be avoided at any cost. It's not a commentary on the state of our world, but at the same time, I wanted it to be a story that's not uncommon to people--it's not a film about Vietnam under a microscope rather it's a film about hope for a better life. It's about people escaping from persecution or famine or poverty--whatever has ever and always inspired people to leave where they're from in hope for a better existence. So it's not a comment about America in particular, but America and the West is the place where a lot of people in the world look to for salvation.
The last shot of your film, a field of grain shot in a certain way, reminds me of shots in Herzog's Heart of Glass. Any connection?
Not on purpose. (laughs) I'd have to say I've been more influenced by American cinema of the '70s. My knowledge and my contact with European films after I left the United States is pretty cursory, pretty lacking--I admit my prejudice, that there were so many vibrant, astonishing voices in American cinema at that time. But there was one German New Wave director's film about America that I took a lot of heart in...
Wim Wenders's Paris, Texas?
(laughs) That's just the one. It's a wonderful film, and the way that he captured the American temperament was just astonishing. I showed it to my editor--she's a very young woman--while she was editing my film and told her that this was the feeling that I wanted to evoke. Just a wonderful picture.
You're an extremely successful commercial director. You've won almost every award there is to win in that discipline. Have you ever thought to mix your own trailers?
No, I don't know why but that never occurred to me. You point to a kind of schizophrenia in modern cinema with that question, though, this sharp separation so that there's almost two things happening whenever a movie is made. Media, any kind of industry, marketing is all-important now so that the individual, artistic voice is lost. On the one hand there's a part of American cinema that is vibrant and the other part is something that I don't recognize as cinema as I thought of it as I was growing up. It serves a different function even though it lives in the same place--it's entertainment on a cynical level, assembly-line product as opposed to handcrafted product, you know. I remember the critic from THE GUARDIAN in 1993, I sat next to him on a plane and he said to me then that modern cinema will soon be communicating to a global audience of semi-literates and I fought against that idea for a long time. But ten years later, I think he's right.