Having graduated from the National Film School of Denmark last year, Isabella Eklöf has already made 11 shorts including Noter Fra Kælderen (Notes From Underground) which was showcased in the Encounters Short Film and Animated Festival. The film is notable (sorry) for it’s pastel colour cinematography and the excruciatingly awkward, sometimes brutal and sometimes romantic, relationship between the middle aged Karlberg (Rasmus Haxen) and young girl Anita, a bold performance from Lærke Engelshart. Eklöf centres the film around this unusual couple, handling scenes with unsettling precision and poeticism. Given the content of the film, it came as something of a surprise that when I met her yesterday to discuss the film, practically the first thing she did was buy smoothies for the both of us.
Congratulations on getting the film into the festival, it’s a very provoking work. I hope that’s what you intended?
Not really, no. [laughs] But that’s okay, I never intend to provoke. It’s not interesting to me. All I ever want to do is investigate something. And yeah, that may not always be so entertaining, and stuff is called ‘provoking’ to make somebody watch something that they find difficult.
Do you think it’s harder to shock people today with violent video games and movies?
Yes and no. There are trends to everything. This film is not about the love between a man and a girl. It’s about domination. It’s about force. But if you were to have made a film in 1910 about an older man and a young girl I don’t think many eyebrows would’ve been raised. So it’s different – what’s provoking in different ages.
How important is context, so for example where and how we see it? If perhaps Notes From Underground was played in an art gallery, does that change the impact?
Of course. Absolutely. And the example of the art gallery is very poignant because that is a completely different audience and they have completely different expectations. Notes From Underground would be perceived differently compared to which films before, which films after. But placed in an art gallery it’d be very radical, something I would never do because I don’t perceive it as that kind of film. If I wanted to make a piece of art for an art gallery I’d make something that was cyclic and something that you could watch for ten seconds and still understand. Not all people do that, Jesper Just is a brilliant Danish artist who makes short films for art galleries and you have to watch it all to get the film but then again they’re so beautiful you can also watch ten seconds and be moved.
You’ve talked briefly about the influence of Roy Andersson and Michael Haneke in your filmmaking style. In Notes From Underground I see a lot of Jeanne Dielmann by Chantal Akerman…
Not really. But maybe I should see them more. [laughs]
Do you bring cinematic influences to the set?
Absolutely. Ulrich Seidl is definitely the most influential on this film. Have you seen Models?
There’s a beautiful scene in Models where all these girls with their blown up lips and stretched out faces are standing in front of a mirror, and the camera is a mirror. It’s beautiful. And the way they’re so intensely standing, and at the same time interacting is one of the most cinematic scenes I’ve ever seen. Seidl is very good at doing that, at capturing something that is very true, and sort of documentary, and present, and not acted at the same time as presenting it in an extremely stylised setting which actually brings the… not ‘actors’, because they’re not really actors, they’re partakers, close to you as if you were in the room. That’s my idea of filmmaking.
You talk about style, and one thing I noticed in your film was the style changes for each scene. A handheld camera follows her around the room, sometimes you have overhead shots – why is that, is it to meet the needs for each scene?
No, I’m rather anarchistic that way. I don’t see a need to define a set of rules and follow them like that.
So you’re against traditionalism?
I’m not against anything, I just don’t want to be limited by a set of rules that I set up if I need to do something else. i’m just not very academic in that way. I never – maybe I will more in the future, but I try not to calculate the affect of anything. I try really to discover while i’m working. which is maybe the part that’s working, actually. [laughs]
I find that really interesting because the great filmmakers of Denmark from Dreyer to Von Trier, they have all limited themselves.
Yes it’s a very Danish thing [laughs]. Five Obstructions, and all that.
Yes, brilliant. What do you think is the next step in Danish cinema, if there is still a national cinema?
The generation that I belong to, the five people who graduated from Danish Film School one year ago and the people who’re graduating from super 16, the number two film school, I’m pretty sure that a large portion of the people I know are the ones that’ll be the future Danish cinema. And if I should try to define us or them…yeah, can I get back to that? [laughs] I mean I’ve never thought about that before.
Do you think that’s important, to have a national cinema or to be more universal – because you’ve taken a story from Belgium and moved that.
It’s just a marketing thing really. Everyone needs to put things in boxes. And if you can help them put that in a box, that’s good for your film, basically.
And you said it’s based on a true story, and bears resemblance to many true stories and will probably be another true story, but why do you think nobody else has made this specific story?
Michael. Which I’ve heard is basically the same film, I haven’t seen it. I don’t dare because I would see all the faults in my own film.
There are scenes where the old man is just coming into the house, another shot where he’s half into mowing the lawn, and a shot after they’ve had sex – how do you decide where to edit in a scene?
I don’t know, but actually in this film I’m not quite happy with the edit in this film. I feel the rhythm is forged, I would’ve liked to linger longer in some instances. Yeah the rhythm is very uneven, I actually want to re-edit it.
Another potent thing about the film is the use of music, particularly that song at the beginning and the end I wonder if you could tell me a bit about that song?
That song was written by the sound designer of the film, who is a brilliant composer and he knows me and my taste very well. and he’s designed the song to fit my temperament, and the film of course. and what we needed or what I long for is the very rhythmical and very dark or harsh rhythms which is a form of aggression which is somehow important to complement the film because she shows no aggression. but it’s there, it’s underneath the surface, and I needed it to be there. but in the context, she can never show it.
But the scene where she’s tearing the doll up…
Oh yeah that’s true, that is aggression. But it’s not directed against him.
…but it’s kind of done obscurely; you can only see the doll, and you can’t see-
What’s the reception been like in Denmark and other places?
The reception has been universal, actually and it’s quite interesting. And I find that, I don’t know the proportions exactly, but there’s always a significant amount that hated, and a significant amount of people that love it in any given audience. I’m surprised at the vibrant reactions, actually.
Which audiences reacted strongly against it?
I don’t know if I can categorise it, I just know that at any screening there will be people leaving in disgust. Not for the subject matter, but something that I do to them. They think the film is bad, basically, and an insult.
Like David Cronenberg said ‘I touch people in places they don’t want to be touched’.
Do you think that’s a good thing to have a mixed reaction?
Yeah, why not. Better than everyone being bored. [laughs]
Was it a crew that you worked with before?
Yes. This is a crew that we’ve sort of assembled each other throughout the four years of film school, we drift towards each other through the different things we do. the cinematographer and sound designer are definitely people I’m going to work with again and again.
You said you were developing two features. Can you see yourself working with them again?
I will, definitely. We have a deal, actually, me and the sound designer, that on the next film they’re going to work in a pair – he and another guy. It’s an old issue that sound design is always overlooked in filmmaking, it’s always at the end and suddenly there’s no money left and people don’t understand how crucial it is to the way the film is perceived. So as a way to try and work on that we need two sound designers because that’s the way they work in hollywood – they have a crew. You probably have that in the UK because you have more money for your films than we do in Scandinavia but there is almost always just one guy who gives it on to a mixer afterwards.
Like The Conversation, Coppola said he always wanted to credit the sound designer as co-director because it has that kind of significance and is undermined.
Yeah, it is.
Were there any ideas that didn’t make it into the final cut, or you didn’t want to do?
There are a lot of scenes that are edited out. For example, we had a small old TV that sat in the upper room where he rapes her with this crude porno film. It’s really corny, a student sits down on the sofa and the professor comes in and puts his hand on her thigh. But we made just the beginning, it was too lame. It wasn’t precise enough and really you needed it to be a real porn with some real pornographic elements for it to work in that setting because what we tried to do was substitute a rape scene, which we didn’t want to do, with some kind of symbol of that and you would’ve needed something more hardcore. We also had an image of him from below having sex with her, but that was gruesome. Way too strong, you couldn’t have had that and not thrown up every time you saw him. We had to cut carefully, which is a shame because the sex is of course a part of the downness and the greyness and the weariness and utter hopelessness of it all, but it cannot be portrayed because it will always be exciting or it’ll excite…not necessarily lust, but aggression.
It feels more harrowing by never seeing that side; when he brushes her hair, it’s all the more disturbing because you don’t see that extremity. There’s a shot at the beginning when she’s looking at a picture of an old tree in front of a forest. Was that made for the film?
The picture, no. We found it in the house. The story of the house is pretty interesting. We had a long time location scouting and we couldn’t find anywhere that was perfect and I had too many ideas that the cellar should be directly accessible from the kitchen because I wanted one shot where he goes upstairs and goes downstairs, there’s a lot of symbolism: downstairs where he keeps and feeds her, middle and upstairs. In the last minute we passed a place just outside of Copenhagen and we’d been all around the country. It belonged to a guy who was a hoarder. The house actually belonged to his mother but she moved to France and he was living in a house nearby and he’d stacked all this old crap that he couldn’t make himself throw away. What we had to do, ironically enough, was go in there and clean it. [laughs] But that picture was one of the things we found in there. It’s a personal image for me because naturally I have some kind of experience of feeling that I’m in prison otherwise I wouldn’t have made a film like this. I remember wanting to get out into nature, and not have access to it. It’s just an ordinary image of longing for freedom.
That’s a very good answer. You mentioned Carl Reygadas, is the opening scene inspired by Silent Light?
That’s a beautiful scene. Yes, you’re right actually. Because if you watch Silent Light there’s the wide shot then there’s a shot from the side, and then a shot from the other side and they’re almost looking into the camera and, you’re right, it’s absolutely inspired by Silent Light.
Do you think it’s possible that there were subconscious influences?
Of course. Particularly what you’re thinking about. [laughs]
Where does your personal taste originate from?
You mean what I’ve seen in the past, or themes…
Sure, thematically – that’s a more interesting question.
As I said: social prison. This is just looking back at the films I’ve made. It’s not something I was conscious of when I made them. You never are. You just do something because it feels right, and then afterwards you can analyse it. I don’t think it’s too good if you have lies, that’s why I also don’t like to put up too many rules. I mean you can look at Trier; he’s a brilliant director, but I feel sometimes he gets lost in these rule sets he makes. But I can’t say anything about Trier, he’s great, anyway! Themes. Something about sexuality for sure. I made a film about a woman stuck in an elevator with another woman she’s in love with. I made a film about two gay skater guys who can’t show their love or lust because it’s forbidden. I made a film about a black girl in a german bourgeoisie family.
Like a Fassbinder film…
Yes. Yeah, in a way, but again more Seidl than Fassbinder. And then a Polish girl in love with a Swedish man…it’s always about constraints, about not being allowed to follow your nature. It’s something I really hate about human kind. That you’re not allowed to follow your nature. All the other animals do it. [laughs] I don’t believe in a higher entity, so I don’t see that human kind is different from any other animal species. I know that we have to constrain aggression, of course, because we don’t want people hurting each other. But I just can’t understand why we just don’t do whatever we feel like, why we put up all these meaningless rules for everything.
That’s particularly interesting to me as I studied psychology. One final question, do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers, one mantra?
I’d have to say just do it. [laughs] Yeah it’s the same as everybody else, but it’s true. Pick up any old camera and do it. It’s the only way to move forward.
For the New Film Journalism Workshop.