My overall goal was to give a sense of life.
The acclaimed Icelandic writer/director tells us about his latest film Echo which had its world premiere on Sunday at the Locarno Film Festival.
After Volcano which premiered at the 2011 Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes and Sparrows, winner of the 2015 Golden Shell at San Sebastian, Rúnarsson’s third feature is running for the Pardo d’oro in the main competition of the 72nd Locarno Film Festival.
Echo marks a radical shift in the director’s work. Described as ‘an echo from postmodern society, a contemporary mirror’, the film is an ensemble piece of 56 scenes, set between Christmas and New Year.
The film was produced by Live Hide, Lilja Ósk Snorradóttir and Rúnarsson for Nimbus Iceland and Pegasus Pictures, with support, among others, from Nordisk Film & TV Fond. Jour2Fête handles world sales.
The film will open in Iceland on November 22. We spoke to the director.
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What enticed you to break away from a linear storytelling and use a mix of fiction/non-fiction, to tell not one long story but more than 50 short stories?
Rúnar Rúnarsson: It stems from an old idea that I’ve had for many years, even before I went to film school, like something that you scribble in a note book and revisit every here and there. After Sparrows, I had written different stories, but this one kept coming back. I wanted to challenge myself and at the same time, these stories, or fragments of life, were in my heart and mind at that very time.
A bit like the Impressionists, you seem to play with your filmic tools to create emotions and feelings, through a patchwork of scenes contrasting in content and length. Can you explain how you constructed the film, and why you set it between Christmas and New Year?
RR: It’s when I decided to set the film during the Christmas-New Year season that the structure fell into place. Fragments of life get more weight when they take place during that season; it amplifies our emotions. We’re convinced that we should have a good time, but it’s a tough period for many people. We try to be better persons, we listen to the evening news in a different way and are more aware of those who aren’t as fortunate.
How did you work between staged and true reality?
RR: After finishing the film I decided I wouldn’t tell what is highly prepared, what is captured and what’s in between. My overall goal was to give a sense of life, whether you believe it’s a fly on a wall, or true. The film lingers on the great scale between fully-controlled fiction and documentary. Here, with my team, we set ourselves a set of rules. One of them was not to break time, and cut within a scene. When you cut, you break time and create awareness. Other rules were to use one static shot on a tripod, never to shoot in the same location, and for individuals to appear only in one single scene.
Many people in front of the camera are themselves. This helps to underline some kind of truth about our society. People tend to think that documentaries are more true than fiction films, but both are the results of a person’s vision and filmmaking decisions. All my fiction films are based on my own interpretation of reality, or something that happened to me or people close to me.
Were the actors a mix of amateurs and professionals?
RR: It was important for me not to work with known actors. There are some trained actors in the film, but who’ve never played in a film or are unknown to the general audience. For instance, in the scene set in a greenhouse, the character is a trained actor in life, but also a farmer. Also, many people close to me are in the film, like my father and my daughter. She helped me with the casting of other kids.
Some scenes are a few seconds long, others just a few minutes. How did you work in the editing room to build the rhythm and did you remove many scenes?
RR: We shot much more scenes than what’s in the film. We cut down the principal dates and had many small unit days instead. Sometimes we were just driving around, trying to capture interesting things happening. There is a lot of freedom that comes with working with a small crew. You can wait for an exact life situation and work on a different rhythm with children.
Is there one particular scene that you cherish?
RR: My answer would probably be different one day to the next
You are one of the producers. With this hybrid film, how did you navigate between the feature film and documentary support system?
RR: First of all, I’m very proud of the production value and the entire film, although it was made for a tight budget-€1 million.
As a general rule, the support system for feature length films is based on the Greek storytelling tradition, and this is how projects - even arthouse -are evaluated. There is nothing wrong with it, but sometimes stories lend themselves to different structural forms. Within the documentary support system, there is perhaps more freedom for authors to mix genres and experiment. My film fell between the two support categories.
What is your best memory of Christmas?
RR: Since I became a father, my first Christmas with my daughter was pure magic. Now every Christmas is hers, and I’m privileged to be part of it.
What will come next after Echo?
RR: When I finish a film, I often have no idea what I will do next! This is also because I write my own scripts. I always follow what intrigues me at a particular time, what emotions or reflexions drive me. But this film has been therapeutic. Perhaps I will go back to a more traditional way of telling a story.