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Interview with In Order of Disappearance director Hans Petter Moland

Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland was in Edinburgh to discuss his latest film In Order of Disappearance.

Norweigian director Hans Petter Moland has been working solidly for over twenty years now, with films like Zero Kelvin, Aberdeen and The Beautiful Country earning him critical acclaim. His latest film, jet black crime comedy In Order of Disappearance, sees the 59-year-old at the top of his game. The film premiered in Berlin this year before screening at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, where I was lucky enough to sit down with Moland to discuss his latest film, his ongoing collaboration with Stellan Skarsgard and the importance of titles. The film is released on September 12th and was reviewed here.

What was it that attracted you to this material in particular?

The story originated with me so it’s a story I’ve toyed around for some years, on a philosophical level. I was playing around with the idea of what happens to a man who not only considers himself civilised but also carries all the accolades and virtues of his society and is recognised as a good upstanding citizen, meeting something so blunt and so animalistic and so callous that his humanity is shredded. Or where the pain is so great that he loses himself, so that was the departure point.

As you may or may not know, I consider the film sort of a fable. You know, it starts out ‘Once upon a time there was a man who kept his little strip of civilisation open through the eternal wilderness…’ and then we go from there.

Was it a conscious choice to do a comedy?

Well I had written a little story, I told the writer about it, I pitched it to him after my previous film had opened in Berlin, he said “You’re planning it as a comedy, right?” and I don’t know if I had thought of it. I thought the rage should be real but I guess his reason for asking was that he knew, or he thought, that it would be impossible to tell the story without being comedic with it. I never considered the humour as being disqualifying for an attempt to say something. But one of the ambitions of this project was also to defy genre, just to ignore the limitations of any kind of expectations, to be compartmentalised by the power of the ego. And to allow things that are perfectly accepted in real life to live side by side, you know our tragedy and our absurd comic observations, so that was a part of a film.

You know, life is full of those things that are this way. My own father, when we went to bury him, we drove him up to the village where he was supposed to be buried. He was not a terribly religious man but he had asked one request which was to be buried in the same grave as his mother who he lost when he was three and a half years old. When we got there, 3:15 in the afternoon, and he was to be buried the next morning, we discovered that they had dug up the wrong grave. It was his aunt or great aunt instead of his mother, and the digger was about to go home to pick up his child from kindergarten or whatever and they were like, it’s kinda late in the day and I said “I can be accommodating in many ways, but not this time”. So they were ok, ok, we’ll dig it up. So you know, it was an emotional day for us but at the same time it was completely absurd having to insist that they actually place the corpse in the right hole!

And that’s the kind of humour that’s in the film I would say. There’s one point at the start when their dead son is on the slab at the morgue that cracked me up…

I’m glad to hear that cracks you up, I think a lot of people crack up, at least internally, but it’s a very sad moment, it’s devastating for them and it’s only 5-10 minutes into the film…

That was the point that let me know it was a comedy. I wasn’t sure up until that point, then I thought it must be. And the title cards that appear anytime someone dies, towards the end become particularly hilarious.

Well I’m so glad you say that because that was exactly where I thought this is the first hint that it’s a comedy should be, that there’s four pumps too many on the gurney you know, and the confirmation of it is after the funeral when Stellan puts the gun in his mouth and his lip gets stuck on it. In fact, it was something I told Stellan, that it should be a film that should be able to embrace the tragedy of this loss where he sees no other resolve to this pain than to take his own life, but at the same time taking the piss out of his lip being stuck on the gun.

You’ve worked with this writer, Kim Fupz Aakeson, before. What’s that process like? How involved are you in the script?

Well obviously because this originated with me I was quite involved in it but I deliberately don’t write, except I wrote the ending. We spar a lot; we talk a lot about intentions, about what’s in bounds and out of bounds in the story.

Is that all before you start writing?

En route as well. He’s the one writing it and he’s a very gifted writer, he’s quick. But it’s part of our contract to use each other you know, he writes and I comment and because he knows I’m gonna go out and direct it, he listens to what I’m saying. He doesn’t necessarily agree with me but out of that comes a fruitful discussion about what we are really trying to achieve here and obviously we have a common interest in exploring that kind of material. Then at some point I take over and I invite him in to look.

Is he still involved as you’re shooting?

He doesn’t come to the shoot and I do whatever I need to do to make it work on set but I mean films really become rewritten and rewritten and he will come at some point in the process and watch a cut and he will say what happened to that or you could get more out of this, or this was kind of disappointing because you know we’re both experienced and he’s a valuable part of the team.

Similarly, you’ve worked with Stellan Skarsgard four times. How involved is he in his character and the film in general? Do you work with him on the character?

With all actors I do. That’s part of the fun of working with actors is beyond what’s on the page and their relationship with the other characters, thinking about what kind of life they have outside of those pages. Perhaps something outside people don’t understand is that whenever you make a film, you’re seeing certain glimpses at people’s lives, where we choose to be present. It’s nice when you watch them you get the sense that their lives expand beyond. They don’t have to write a backstory, but at least they need to be curious about what kind of human being this is. Part of that fun and part of what can rejuvenate and keep a creative process alive with an actor is toying around with what motivates this human being, what motivates him this particular morning. Did he just get laid? Did he not get laid? Did he have breakfast or did he not have breakfast? There are a lot of things that inform us as human beings that are very concrete as human beings so it affects out behaviour.

But if they ask me about dialogue, dialogue in that film seems to be sparse which I don’t ultimately reflect on as an ambition but I realised that I really enjoy dialogue and I enjoy working with actors. I also enjoy that the dialogue between people – or their interaction, not just their dialogue – has traces of their relationship. In other words, this is our first conversation together so it’s a rudimentary interaction, we trade on one particular common thing which is this film and then Stellan and then it expands. If we had been cinephiles together for years, we would have gone at this with a lot of short references and a lot of leapfrogging around in the material and it wouldn’t make sense, but when that is part of a film it’s interesting when people actually have those conversations, where they bob around and it totally makes sense to the people in the scene and make it make sense to the audience as well, but also inform and say something more than just they do with words. Could be about the power structure within their relationship or it could be something about love and hate and old grudges or whatever.

A random aside here but I’m reliably informed that the original title of the film (Kraftidioten) translates to ‘Prize Idiot’. Why is it so different to the English title? Do you have anything to do with that at all?

Yeah I actually came up with the English title myself and I tried to change the Norwegian title because I liked the English title.

It is a good title.

Thank you, I’m very happy to hear that. But we couldn’t find a Norwegian expression that is anything close to our English title. One of the reasons I like the English title is that there’s a certain amount of reward to people who have seen the film, in the title, so it’s a little bit of an inside joke between the audience and me after they’ve seen it and it’s something we can share. I think that’s something a title should do, you know, pull us together.

Is that something you give a lot of thought before you title something?

Yeah, I think a title is important because it gives you a set of spectacles to view – or they can if it’s a good title – it can steer you in a direction or give you glasses to watch a film or in hindsight, once the film is done. I liked the written Norwegian title, the way it sounds, but it’s really a Danish expression more than a Norwegian expression, and I realised while we were making the film that it puzzled people and made people stop, which a good title should do, but I thought there was more to be had. When I was working on the English title, I came up with this. And I went to see a film called Frances Ha…

It’s a brilliant film. It was here in Edinburgh last year actually.

Yeah, and it’s also a brilliant title. The first time I heard the title I thought it sounds like a Chinese American woman, you know? Next time I encountered that film was a photo of (Greta) Gerwig dancing, quite elegant you know, I thought okay, so this is a sophisticated New York chick, she’s not Chinese American, so there must be some other hidden meaning because she’s Frances, you know. And of course since we can share it since we’ve both seen the film, it’s terribly rewarding at the end of that film the way that the title is unveiled to the audience, in that she’s a success story, she gets her apartment, but she is true to her character to the bitter end which I think is wonderful. So I thought, and this is not to make a big deal out of a title, but since you bring it up I think it’s an interesting point, so if a title can do that – if my title can do that – I think it’s a worthwhile ambition. I think it draws you closer together with the audience experiencing the film. I feel a great affinity for Frances Ha, I feel a great affinity for the story and the actor and the storyteller because it’s such an inclusive way of saying farewell.

The film was shot in Norway, which is obviously very snowy. How difficult was that to film in?

It’s cumbersome and you know the high mountains where we shot all the snow plowing, that’s actually a place that the road is closed in the wintertime. Closed from October to May, so we paid the guy on the truck who normally has the permission to open it. He also happens to be our stunt driver who taught Stellan how to drive a snow plow, so that worked a lot better because he was a terrific guy. But you know, when it’s 25 below, things can be a bit slow and people are packed in clothing and standing inside. But I enjoy being outside, I enjoy the snow. I also enjoy seeing my crew looking silly in big clothing, it brings out the child in me and that’s good when you’re making a film.

Like the Albanians towards the end playing in the snow…

Yeah, yeah, exactly. They were wonderful guys, they were some of the best actors, these are the Hamlets and superstars in Croatia and Serbia, and they were the ones who were asked to walk around in city clothing. When I asked them to start goofing around, it didn’t take long, you know.

You’ve talked about Frances Ha. Is that the kind of film you usually like? What sort of films inspire you or influence you?

I like not to be limited. I think if films have originality and if they have a desire to expose you to something that comes from somebody’s heart and mind, either/or, or both. Recently, I watched all the films that were nominated for an Academy Award this year and enjoyed them but at the same time I also saw a beautiful film, what’s it called, La Grande Bellezza?

The Great Beauty?

The Great Beauty, which for me was a wonderful film. I went to school in the States in the 70s when American movies, there were a lot of interesting films being made.

So you were raised on The Godfather, Scorsese…

Yeah and Terence Malick and Scorsese, John Boorman, Steven Frears, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach…and I love going to the movies so as long as somebody really wants to engage me, I can see a lot of different things. A recent thing I saw was Ida, it’s a terrific film. I don’t know anything about him (Pawel Pawelowski), I guess he’s lived in the UK and done decent stuff here but this is something that’s sort of back to his roots or whatever. You seem like you’re into movies so you should definitely see it. It’s a story about a girl who’s in a convent and is about to take the vows and the nun tells her she has an aunt she should go see before she takes the vows. So she travels to the city to go see the aunt who is quite different to the nuns she was raised by, but it says something about being a human being and something about the cost of succeeding in a deprived society.

Before we wrap up, what’s on your slate next?

I’m working on a thriller which we’re trying to see if we can get off the ground before Christmas, we have the money we just don’t know if we have the time to do it. I’ve got a project called Longship which is a Viking story which we’re doing in about two and a half years. It’s a big Viking movie.

A grand scale epic?

Yep, but done Scandinavian style. It’s when you realise why the women had so much power in Scandinavian society and where our humour comes from.

Scandinavian fiction is very popular at the moment, mainly crime stories. What’s going on up there?

There won’t be much crime in this, you know, just a lot of adventure. It’s actually a great story, it’s written by a Swedish author, probably one of the great novels of the 20th Century in Sweden. But it’s really holding up in terms of story because it’s written with a lot of insight and wisdom, and it’s a story about where the heathens of the North meet two of the great religions of this earth. They venture to Spain where they meet the Muslims and eventually become Christian and it’s just a terrific story. We start it in two years, we’re working on it now, everybody wants to see it made. Until then I’ll just keep myself busy.

In Order of Disappearance is released in UK cinemas on September 12th and you can read my review here.