Matthew Turner met director, producer and cinematographer: Erik Poppe (Hawaii Oslo), to talk about his latest film A Thousand Times Good Night, which he also co-wrote:
Matthew Turner (MJT): How did the project come about, first of all?
Erik Poppe (EP): Basically, it came about because I was working as a photographer, in a lot of conflict zones in war areas in the 1980s. And I did that until the late 80s and then went into film and studied film in Stockholm. So I left that way of thinking and telling stories in order to be a filmmaker. In between, every time I released a feature movie, some of my old colleagues from that time have been asking me, over and over again, ‘Well, when are you going to tell some of those stories?’ And I’d sort of been not keen or interested in doing that yet, because I hadn’t been able to find the right angle. I’d seen a lot of movies made about journalists and photographers being out there, and I’ve always believed, ‘Well, they are entertaining, but they are really not telling the story as I see it’ – I think they’ve been romanticising or making the journalist a hero. But as I was experiencing in the 80s – and as I’ve been starting to experience again now, because for the last six or seven years, in between my features, I’ve been starting going out [to war zones] again, to the Congo, to Somalia, to Afghanistan, to north-west Pakistan – but now with a film camera and doing small stories. And now with kids and my wife, suddenly I’ve found the angle, because the right angle, the honest angle, for me, is to tell the domestic part of being in this position, it’s not to be out there and dramaticising (sic) it. Of course, it’s exciting for people to see, but my only real vision about the film was to tell an honest portrait of how I feel it and how a lot of my friends and colleagues feel it. The hard thing is not to be able to survive being out there – in most of the areas, it’s not a hard thing to survive. The hardest thing is to come back home and survive the mundane daily life, where you realise that people don’t seem to care about what’s going on out there. And also just being out there in situations which are quite close to life and death for the people you are out there for, the victims, you are their only voice. And then coming back home and you have to attend a meeting at the school, parents discussing something about the football field or whatever and they are so passionate about what’s going on and then you have to sit there and count to ten and swallow and swallow and think, ‘I can’t explode, I can’t, I must just behave and sit there, respect them for what they’re doing and try to survive that, without exploding’.
MJT: Given that these are your stories, or based on your own experience, where did the decision to make the protagonist female come from?
EP: Well, basically, from my point of view, the theme or the topic is how you fight with your passion. I wanted to portray passion, but then also the price for that, for you and the people around you, or for me and the people around me. And it’s sort of the price to pay. And for somebody to go out there and do this job, when I’m doing it, as a man, people don’t seem to question it so much, even if I have my wife and two daughters back home. As soon as I switched myself into a woman, a mother with two kids, suddenly, everyone reacted right away and said, ‘Are you crazy? I mean, how many females are out there with small kids?’ And they see that that’s still a very complicated situation. And that’s why, because we are still there, that we don’t accept mothers doing that, but we accept men doing that every day. So that’s basically the reason, as well as most of the story being almost autobiographical, it is taken from all the discussions that have happened within our small family. And I also wanted to nail that situation down in details, so the thing was just to switch the sexes and then also going in to look at some of the female war photographers out there, as I know some of them, and look into their lives and I saw it exactly as it is.
MJT: I was going to say, did you interview any female war photographers in particular? What did you take away from that, that you perhaps weren’t expecting?
EP: Well, basically, that sort of confirmed [what I already had] rather than gave me new material. They confirmed it and of course confirmed the dilemma they feel, that the dilemma is stronger than within men and how I experienced it, because they are mothers going out there, like Lynsey Addario and others. But also, talking to women being out there, I also realised – as I’d been realising for many, many years now – they really do such an important job, because if they were not there, we wouldn’t get those stories back home, because it’s only women who can talk to and get contact with the women in the Muslim areas today. I’m not able to approach them. And even though they’re mothers with small kids, it’s important because with that angle, you see stories that you otherwise wouldn’t see that easily. So I wanted to emphasise the importance of that, actually, that there are women like Rebecca out there, that we need it. Their victims need it. And I was quite convinced that that needed to be the angle.
MJT: How did Juliette Binoche get involved?
EP: I contacted her, her best friend is a friend of mine, a French-Danish female producer in Paris. And she happened to have seen some of my movies and she was curious when she heard about the subject. So I sent her the script, as it was developing and I met her and presented the project. So we sort of found each other in the project, because I insisted that we needed to choose each other, we’re going to do this film together, it’s not like a one man show, it’s something you really need to do. And I wanted, strangely enough, to push her even further, I wanted to make this film as proof of her enormous talent and as an artist, an actor, I wanted to see, can I push her in one direction that I haven’t seen [in other films she’s done] and is there something here she could figure out as an actor. So I wanted this to be one of her strongest performances and it’s for others to judge whether or not we’ve been able to do that, but for Juliette herself, as a person, it was a stunning seven or eight months and at the end, we had no words left when we did it, because it really was a matter of giving what you had. But to be able to work with an actor such as Juliette is a gift.
MJT: She seems to be somebody who throws herself into projects quite passionately, like, I think with other directors, she quite often originates the project and brings the project to them. So did you sense that kind of commitment and passion from her on this?
EP: I feel that she is really investing her time in the directors. She is known for pushing a lot of them, even if they are recognised and have their own body of work, she needs to push and she needs to be pushed back. And she needs to have the answers. She’s not the type who will figure out the answers when they’re not in the script – she needs to have the answers, so if the script’s not there, she’ll push you to nail it and to get it done, because she needs to have that material. She doesn’t like if it’s two answers from a director, she doesn’t like it if a director says, ‘Well, I don’t know, what do you think?’ But that means that when she asks me for direction, I need to give her the direction. But first of all, she likes that we work with a project, we work with everything, we nail it down and then when we are standing there on the set, she wants to show me, before I start talking her down. She’s extremely – I know that there’s a lot [of people] who find her difficult, but I love that way of working, it’s the way I love to work as well. And I love that resistance in the process. I love to allow it to hurt while you’re working.
MJT: If, as you say, she wants the answers to all be in the script, does that mean that she’s happy to stick to the script when you’re shooting, or do you allow her to improvise?
EP: She wants it too look like it’s not a script, like it is going on at that moment, this generic situation going on. But that’s sort of her quality. And it’s a matter, of course, of always allowing things to happen while you’re doing it. If you’re not, then you’re not able to deal with the fact that film is a medium, is an art form where it should happen. But she is sort of taking that responsibility and she shares the responsibility with me and with the rest of the actors and she is really making people good. I can tell you that when I’m taking the shot of the other characters and she’s giving her performance [off camera, but standing opposite her co-stars], it’s similar, exactly similar. It’s still so hard for her, she’s really going all the way in, even if you don’t see her. You should. I don’t use two-camera techniques, I use one, because I feel that’s better. But she gives everything and I can tell you, it helps the other actors. When I did the take in the car with the daughter, when she picks up the camera, that scene took me almost five or six hours, even with a simple set-up, because after every scene, Juliette was totally blown [meaning ‘exhausted’] and she needed fifteen or twenty minutes to reset. And that’s remarkable, And that’s because I can push her and she can push me and we can push each other, because I wanted that. Let’s have a few takes, but really dig in. For every actor to go by themselves and dig and see what you find and then get in position and do it. And I love that, because I think that’s – that’s what I find so interesting about working with actors, whether it’s in a play or in a film, when they want to do that, when they want to have that resistance in their work and do it proper [sic].
MJT: What was the hardest thing to get right in the whole process?
EP: The hardest thing was to shoot in Kabul and shoot in a refugee camp in Kenya, on the border of South Sudan and Uganda. Of course, technically, because of security. For the rest, everything is really hard [laughs], but also, I love it, because getting that resistance, you come up, you flow, it’s like those people out there on wings, you know, you need that to be able to fly out there. And that’s the resistance, that’s the hard thing, everything is hard. And when I asked for everything that Juliette had while we were preparing, I said, ‘We’ll have to skip getting to know each other, we’ll have to start working the first hour by believing that we’ve known each other for 20 years. You can say everything to me and I can say everything to you. We have to be honest and just go straight into the script and the story’. And of course, there’s a moment there where you think to yourself and a glass or a cup of coffee is thrown at you and it’s because she’s so angry! And then, as you look down and you look up and she’s like, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry!’ and you realise, that’s the battle, that’s where you need to go. Some of those moments when I’m leading rehearsals late into the night, I think, ‘Is it worth it?’, because you are totally gone [meaning exhausted], but, no, the hardest thing, of course, is to do something as technically challenging as filming in Kabul, or in those areas in Kenya.
MJT: Do you have a favourite scene in the film?
EP: I want to say the hardest scene, to be the hardest scene. I wanted to sort of show a story about Rebecca and her family. I wanted to avoid that it was a love story between Rebecca and her husband. That was never my intention. And I hope people see that, I would expect them to see that it’s a story about Rebecca and her family. And the family is represented most of all by her daughter, who has the biggest fragility. So there are some of those scenes, but maybe the scene with the camera, but also the scene I love is the scene where she actually leaves her kid in Kenya. Although, it’s sort of – you want to push your protagonist away, you want to throw something at her [reaches for dictaphone]…
MJT: Don’t throw that!
EP: I wanted to achieve that. At that moment you really kind of almost hate your protagonist and I want that complexity in the film. And I like the fact that I was able to work with Nikolaj [Coster-Waldau], who is a muscle guy – everything he does is very hard, tough, rough and macho – and to make him so fragile, like a small, small man. I was working with him a lot, because he came straight from the set of Game of Thrones and I was going up to Dublin to rehearse with him in between, but I realised it was hard, because he was in that world. And then when I got him over, we had just like a small week, a week and a half before we started shooting, two weeks and I just had to push, push, push him right away. But I’m really happy, because I feel – and I know that Nikolaj is really surprised, as well as his agents in the US – they love it a lot, that they saw that person in Nikolaj. Because I saw him on stage, many, many years ago and I saw that potential in that actor, so I want to push him to do more serious stuff. I mean, that type of stuff as well. And then also, it was being able to find Lauryn Canny, the young girl playing the oldest daughter, and being able to work with her and shape her and introduce her to audiences. She’s been in small TV stuff in Ireland before. I’m not proud – she should be proud of her performance, not me – but I’m proud of being able to find her.
MJT: How did Nikolaj get involved in the film?
EP: Just by actually asking him. We met before, some years ago and he expressed that he wanted to be in one of my projects if there was time and if it was the right part. So I knew, from before. So I just had to figure out if this could be the part. And I saw that couple, Juliette and Nikolaj and I thought it was quite interesting. And a believable couple, actually.
MJT: You have a small part for Larry Mullen Jr, the drummer from U2. How did he end up in the film?
EP: Well, realising I had to shoot in Ireland, I didn’t know so much about Ireland, but I knew Beckett, I knew various novels and I thought, ‘Well, what else is Ireland?’, well, it us U2. So I was actually having a bit of fun with the process as well, but to be honest, what could I do to try something quite different, but to try something quite different, but find something that [on the surface] really is not right for the film. And I’ve done that before as well. And I know he’d done one film that he wasn’t happy with – nobody was happy with it – so I know that he’s been doing movies and I felt he was interesting and I just wanted to ask him if he would try and it would help the film’s line-up of actors, people would say, ‘What are you doing?’ And he was really nervous, but he was really happy to be asked and he actually said yes, as long as it’s not too big, as long as it’s like it is. And he really wanted to support the film, because he read the whole script and he didn’t know me, but then he saw the movies and he said, ‘I really want to support this film, so if I can do it in between, as we are preparing the record now, I will’. And he was fun. And such a great guy to have on the set, because he really included everyone. He was going to the second light assistant, whatever, he was playing with everyone. He is so nice. And the funny thing is that Juliette didn’t know this guy. She was like, ‘U2?’ ‘It’s a band, it’s a rock and roll band!’ She didn’t know about it!
MJT: What’s your next project?
EP: I’m trying something quite different, but I want to do it as honestly as I’ve been doing my other movies. I’m doing a really epic piece, it’s a true story about the King of Norway and the hours before the Germans attack Norway in World War II. It’s three days and it’s extremely dramatic.