Jeanette Nordahl's Wildland (a.k.a. Kød & blod) doesn't feel like somebody's directorial debut at all. Where so many first features are packed to the gills with every idea the director's ever had for fear they'll never get another opportunity to make a movie, this one is indicated by an extraordinary reserve, a sense that for as much as made it into the film, there was more left on the table. Its connective tissue is diaphanous and reliant on the experience the viewer brings to it. Some veteran filmmakers could stand to learn from this--that an active viewership is a state to which one should aspire in art, not actively avoid. Wildland is a mature piece done by a filmmaker with a gratifying faith in both herself and her audience.
I was thrilled to chat with Ms. Nordahl following Wildland's virtual screening at this plague year's Fantasia Fest. After we spent the first several minutes talking about how fucked the United States is, I asked her to speak about her collaboration with screenwriter Anna Ingeborg Topsøe, a fellow Dane:
JEANETTE NORDHAL: We had both just finished up film school--I went to school here [at Super16, based at the Nordisk Film Studio in Valby, Copenhagen] and Ingeborg went to school in England. We had a mutual friend who said, "I think there's going to be the potential for a good collaboration going on between the two of you, a good critical chemistry," and, you know, there was, instantly. We did a short film, Nylon, together, which is, like Wildland, also about family. It takes place over a weekend with a boy who obviously has his own version of the truth only to find there are multiple versions.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: Another play on subjectivity.
Exactly, and once it was done, Nylon, what really hit us during the course of editing it was that we had this very neutral approach to the family while shooting, but the places where the film really lives is when we expanded it out to include the family. We were talking about this, about how interesting it would be to "up the stakes" on this family maybe, how there was more story to tell here. So we decided to make another film together, this one centred on family and community--the power that community has over shaping us. It just kind of seemed like... I don't know who came up with the original, literal idea of Wildland, but we decided somewhere along the way to use the mafia genre, a traditionally male-code genre, to up the stakes, as it were. Within a week we had the characters and an outline of the story and then I got completely freaked out because I thought we would never get funding to do a film like this, not with the way things are in Denmark right now. I took Ingeborg on a three-month detour where we looked all these other projects and ideas we had and it became clear at the end of all that, the film we both actually just really wanted to make was Wildland the whole time.
Was there exposition written into the script that you subsequently left off in the shooting?
Yes--a lot, or I should say, no, not in the final draft, but early we had ideas about all of it. We developed towards this goal together--she did her thing, I did mine, and we talked a lot about the process, about what we want to say and how we want to say it or not say it. I like to test things as well, so we did a small test shoot, a scene trying to create tension in the not-so-obvious ways. Like can we do it expressively, through the reactions and not ever really showing anything? I really liked exploring that aspect of it: how much of a backstory can happen in your imagination?
Once the cast was on board, did you give them notes on what wasn't there?
Yes, we had a lot of background stories, a lot of details, the entire prehistory. A lot of it was created in the beginning with me and Ingeborg, but even more I would say created with our actors. With Bodil, for instance, Sidse [Babett Knudsen] had this idea of like how long did she breastfeed each of her boys? She was very detailed. How did these three men grow to be what they are based on how they were raised, and is there an explanation there in these details for why they are the way they are? Sidse noted, too, how each of "her" boys didn't resemble the other at all so maybe, probably, all three had different fathers, and what would that environment have done to the boys and when? She picked up on all these insinuations in the casting and the script. I think, obviously, you don't talk about that directly with the audience, but for her she had to have that background to navigate her through how she reacted to each of her kids.
There are so many moments in your film that are just little action details, someone arranging a hair, someone seeing something for a moment through a crack in the door, someone moving something over a few inches. How much of that is scripted and how much is organic? Can you even separate that?
There's a scene where Ida removes a bottle from Bodil when she's been drinking and she does it in a way like she would if it were something that she's used to, so now we wonder if her mother had the same issue and these things. Look, we want to find these details, right? These tiny little details that if you notice it it's wonderful, but you don't need to notice it like in the front of your mind for it to create a sense of fullness in the interior lives of these characters. It doesn't impact the plot, you won't miss anything, you know, or anything like that, but these were the details that we really were interested in and Ingeborg has such a gift with writing details.
"It's quite impossible to separate my sex from my personality. I can't say what is what."
Knudsen is such a pro. Did your lead, Sandra Kampp, go through a similar process?
Finding someone like Sandra is a lucky punch, right? I mean you can, you should, only do so much in trying to craft a performance. You need to trust them and that what you see in the audition is--that you can honour it. It was very lucky, finding her. She had a little training. The casting director, we spent a few days helping her with basic things like helping to make her not be aware of the camera. Technical things like how do you hold yourself, relax your body, when the camera is looking at you. It's more difficult than you would think to not be watched. She takes directions so incredibly well, so if you tell her something, she kind of just gets it. Incredible. Incredible. She was only seventeen when we were shooting it and it's a very rough film on the surface and the thematics are very rough as well.
Did you coach her on the subtext?
We didn't have to, and I don't know that we could teach it if she didn't get it already. She read it, she understood it, she talked about the themes in her own words, what she felt the film was about. From the beginning, we were amazed at the depth with which she understood this film. I worked with her more deeply than with the more seasoned actors, but more as a coach, I think, in helping her find the emotion in the moment sometimes. Like, centring her in the scene and where Ida is in the scene, but she intuitively understood Ida. She never looked down on Ida or the decisions Ida made. She really cared for her. I think obviously that matters a lot.
Did you do anything on the set to replicate the family dynamics?
Yes, with the boys I really wanted to create a sense of family, where it would feel like a real family. I mean, every director wants that. We were in the countryside for the shoot and I had all the boys living together. Bodil was isolated and Ida was isolated. The boys had a bond, then, and there is the feeling that everyone was a little scared of Bodil--maybe there were things that were happening between the boys that they didn't share with Bodil. And with Ida, of course, I wanted her to be wanting to find a way into the family. Always on the watch. I think physically arranging these pieces helped, but it took all of the actors to take their characters and to understand what the movie is driving towards, even if the script doesn't make all of it explicit.
During the course of the pre-shoot/testing period, is this when [composer] Puce Mary joined the project?
Yes, early on, quite early on in the process. She did this very heavy piece, score number, that's in the film around the midpoint when we're going really heavy on the score that's largely unchanged from the test piece we did before we even started shooting. She understood the tension, really hit the connection there in what we wanted to express within the characters, immediately and wordlessly. Amazing. And validating.
When you say "the way are things in Denmark right now," to what are you referring?
[H]ere, everything's funded by the government. We got two rejections from two different commissioners. I don't think anyone expected it to be that interesting. They didn't understand what our take on it was. Maybe they found it to be unbelievable? I mean, we have here in Denmark this sort of "kitchen sink" ideal. We make incredible dramas, or have in the 1990s onward. We're so good at it, and when you're good at something you have the tendency I think to want to keep doing it. But then we don't explore what else is in there in our culture, or we quiet the voices who don't want to speak in social realisms. But there's been a breaking movement in the past five years or so where the commissioners are making more bold choices and we're riding that wave. Isabella Eklof's Holiday, for instance, Gustav Moller's The Guilty, Queen of Hearts by May El-Toukhy... So strong and they're doing something else, right, something different from the Danish drama.
And two of those feature debuts as well--a New Wave, indeed.
People are starting to feel like they can do other stuff and, not to say you know that there's anything wrong with the prestigious drama but more to say that we have other ways of saying things that need to be said.
Do you think the fact that you're a woman has anything to do with your early rejections?
It's quite impossible to separate my sex from my personality. I can't say what is what. For me with this film, and I don't know if it has anything to do with being female or not--with Ingeborg as well, neither of us...from the very beginning I was, we were, guided by this notion of [not wanting] to be afraid to fail. I allowed myself to say I can make something that's maybe the worst shit in the world, but that's okay because no one is going to die. I think it's that fear and going beyond that fear of total failure that can take you to a place where you can make something wonderful. Also something very awful. (laughs)
There's a George Bernard Shaw quote about a life spent making mistakes being more honourable and useful than a life spent doing nothing.
That's the place I really like to work. Where I'm not really sure what I'm making is wonderful or awful. For Ingeborg, it was the same thing. We shook hands on that. We wouldn't be restrained by fear. We would say what we needed to say.
And from that, a young female protagonist?
We wanted to talk about what we pass on in a very physical way, hence the female protagonist. I was pregnant while we were working on this film throughout the development of it and I thought a lot about what I was going to pass on as a mother--if knowing it, I would even be able to change anything about my blind spots or if there's already a path for my baby that's laid out by my biases that I'm about to pass on. These are the discussions embedded into the film. I don't know if that's my personality or my sex that gives me these interests. It's a difficult question, this one of what makes a man reject a woman's narrative. Is it that he is a man or is that the narrative is flawed? For me, too, it's impossible for me to put the pieces of me into separate containers.
I have two kids, teenagers now, and I know that they'll be in therapy for my good intentions and hardwired biases.
(laughs) No, exactly, and that's hitting what the film is about right on the spot. I mean, that's very much what Bodil is feeling. She is a character with all of her flaws and blindspots who just tries her best. It's what she's been taught. Expressing that mistakes will be made because we do not know ourselves is what the film is about. I'm working on another project now with Ingeborg again and it feels like we're at the foot of this huge mountain we're about to climb. I've finished a script, too, that I hope to do with Sidse that's much more improvised. Wildland is a very formal, controlled piece, relatively speaking, but I feel like I want to try something else. But both are also about the influence that community has in your creation, and choosing--making the most difficult choices and being unafraid.