Interview: Lisa Langseth wants to do it all
Last year in Stockholm I had a long conversation with director Lisa Langseth, whose film Hotell (2013) I had just seen. I’d been in Gothenburg to see Herbert Blomstedt conduct Beethoven’s 7th – a piece from Langseth’s feature film debut Pure (2009) – when I decided, following encouragement from Australia, to email Langseth’s agent to arrange “a chat” or something. After a brief email correspondence, Langseth invited me for coffee. “It’s really an honour that you are coming all this way,” she said; “are you passing Stockholm at any time?” I prepared for the interview by re-watching Hotell without subtitles; I forgot the dialogue and invented my own. Our conversation turned out to be the first English language interview about her forthcoming film – a “wild film” set in a fictional euthanasia clinic. There’s also plenty of talk about her creative process, her previous movies and about working with Alicia Vikander and Anna Bjelkerud:
Hotell came out a couple of years ago now. Is all your involvement with it finished?
Yes, I mean of course I could travel with it a lot. That’s the wonderful thing when you release a film, you have these invitations. There’s so many good film festivals. If I didn’t have kids I think I would follow it longer. But I know people who travel with a film for so many years that they don’t start with the new one. You know, just go with your old film, you can just travel with it for like 10 years and then go “oh god, where did it go, my next film?” So that’s the good part: now I am working on my next film so we are going to shoot next summer.
What’s going on? What’s the idea?
In Europe now there’s a lot of discussions about assisted suicide. You have these clinics where you can go and have assisted suicide. I think it’s really interesting [and it raises] all the different, difficult questions, and moral questions. Questions of freedom, you know. Where are the limits of freedom in our society? We’re so obsessed with freedom, everybody’s going to choose their life and choose if [they] want to die. I mean, people are helping you; there’s a big difference to [committing] suicide yourself. I find that my own clinic takes place five years ahead, or something. You are allowed to choose how you want to spend the last days of your life. You go there in the last week [of] your life; you’ve got these possibilities to choose how you’d like to spend them. So you can choose between different religions, you can choose whatever you want to. You want to be Catholic? You want to go Buddha? And you just do that to get peace. That’s the idea. So I mean it’s a very heavy subject but I try to make it kind of… it’s kind of a wild film actually!
How did you come to this idea?
I don’t know… I start to search in the area that’s closest to my heart, to where I’m thinking. I think I got this idea when I had children… you know you put life into the world but [then there’s] also these questions about death coming, I think. For me I spend three or four years with every film, from writing until it’s finished, so it has to be something that I really find interesting because otherwise I get bored, you know, and it takes so much time. If I have an idea that I don’t feel that “this is necessary for me, personally” then I don’t have the energy to do it all the way.
Why have your first two films – Pure and Hotell – focused on the theme of ‘identity’?
I think, for me as a person, I have lived a lot of different lives myself, you know? I have done a lot of different kinds of things and also being a little obsessed with different kinds of groups in society, you know, they have different rules, how to behave and so on. That’s something I’ve been interested in for a long time. In Sweden… we’re not close to religion at all, it’s really like I think maybe Socialdemokratin [Social Democracy] – the old Sweden’s system where everybody believed in social equality, it’s not like that anymore. So what do you believe in? It’s like you really have to pick one, to fight for. Truly, you have to pick a way to look at life and I think Sweden really has a problem with that at the moment.
I found a copy of Gunnar Ekelöf’s Dedikation which features in Pure. Can you tell me a bit about it?
It’s a poem of being true… It [means] really be true to what you believe in and don’t care about anything else. And I think that can be very brutal. It’s really fundamentalistic in a way… like, no compromises, you just have to be pure. That’s the only way. I think it’s very beautiful. Katarina, in the film, she’s longing for this feeling, to be pure. But of course, with everything, people are using things for their own purpose, to get power and so on and I think this conductor is a very good example of a lot of men I saw in the theatre world [who were] using Mozart and all this beautiful art that we have in our history just to get, you know, whatever you want! You get laid or you get power or you can get so [many] things. But it’s not Gunnar Ekelöf’s fault and it’s not Mozart’s fault that the conductor is an asshole. It’s not their fault – they did their best.
The locations that you picked for your films, how did they come into the story?
When I wrote the first film it was my first film script and to be totally honest I really didn’t think so much about all the problems that I wrote into the script, how to solve them, you know? Because I was just telling my story. And then when it was finished, my producer was like “yeahhhh but it’s your first film and how are we going to find this orchestra and how are we going to find this concert hall?” and it’s like “oh.” We didn’t have so many opportunities, I mean, it was “use that concert hall [in Gothenburg] or in Stockholm”. Sweden is not such a big country and we don’t have so many orchestras so it’s like “pick one!” And Gothenburg was the better one – we really had a wonderful relationship with the orchestra and it’s the real orchestra that’s playing in the film, so it was a really beautiful collaboration.
Is Henric the only character who’s not part of the orchestra in real life?
Yeah, but… it was so stressful for [the orchestra] because there’s so much to do to get this film making into their plan. And they have so much structure in their work, it’s like, film making can be sometimes so much chaos, I mean you try to have structure but still… But they were like “yeah, and then we have coffee at like 3 o’clock” so then it doesn’t matter if you have 500 people in the audience that we’re going to shoot or we have like two minutes left on the day or whatever – it’s like “no, we’re having coffee in that time.”
That reminds me of the scene where Adam is telling Katarina how he had to stop rehearsal because someone had booked the laundry, like, “oh I’ve got to go!”
I’ve got to go! Yeah, exactly! I think every film is special for you but, with the first one, I didn’t go to any film schools, so it was a lot of work. Really – I did like one half-an-hour film before this one and it was basically taking place in an apartment. To go from that – shooting a film in an apartment in 30 minutes with like four characters – to a concert hall with an orchestra… it was really a big step.
How did you go with the locations for Hotell?
I really fell in love with the last hotel in the film, which was the first one we were shooting. [It] was a bit of a problem because they were so fully booked, there’s a lot of weddings there, and so on, so it’s like we have to shoot in 24 hours, you know, to get everything from that place. It was really stressful. But on the other hand, there were no places around for the crew or actors to stay so everybody has to stay in the hotel. It was really ours when we were shooting there, to wake up in the morning, eating in the same place that you’d shoot. It was really beautiful to start the whole shooting period because everybody got to know each other.
What’s it like to work with Anna Bjelkerud?
Yeah, I love Anna, she’s a wonderful actor. She’s so great I think to start with because we had trouble finding an actor for that role because women at that age, when they read the script, then they go like “oh, I don’t want to do this” or “do I have to show my body?” And we tried to shoot them a little bit to test them, but they got really stressed about the situations and so on. But when Anna got the script she was like “this is me, I can do this, no problem. We are gonna do it all the way. I’m not afraid.” She’s intelligent to know she can take all the things that she’s afraid of and put them in the role. And she became free, I mean, it’s very useful. So I love the character on paper but I think Anna really made the best of it. Couldn’t have been any better than how she did it.
You’ve worked with Alicia Vikander on both Pure and Hotell. Will you work with her again for your next film?
I don’t know – me and Alicia live totally different lives, I mean I live in a house with a lot of kids and a dog and a husband. I just write my scripts and then I shoot every three or four years. Alicia is going around the world, like “woah woah woah woah woah” and when I email her she’s somewhere, like, where is she going? and I don’t even remember all the films she’s shooting at the same time. If I write something for her to play I will become a person who goes “what are you doing now? You have to be here! You gotta be in my film, you gotta be in my film” you know? It’s just terrible. But something for me also, I think I really have to be free, when I’m writing, I have to be free to write. So in my next film I don’t really know… We talked a little bit about it but she’s still so young. This film is more older people. We’ll see, we’ll see.
Do you ever do art in another way?
I had a band when I was younger! And I have also been painting when I was younger. I think my problem has been that I don’t like to choose, you know, I want to do it all! But there is not so much time in the world, so it’s like you have to choose. And what I love with film is that film is the art form where you are really using everything. If you write your own script then you’re alone, a writer, blablabla, and then you get to the shooting process and then you have so many people around you and even if you don’t know everything yourself, it’s like you really work with the music, editing. Film making has so many different levels that it feels like you’re using every part of yourself. I really really love that.
The character of Erika in Hotell… where did this idea come from? Is your story influenced by your own experience of motherhood or by something else?
I think I work with my biggest nightmares a lot. In all my writing and also my first film and the stories before, it’s not something that I have done but it’s something in me that I’m afraid of and I feel pleasure writing about it. My children are really fine but when I had my first child it was very problematic [at first] but then everything was fine. So I haven’t been through the same thing as Erika. But afterwards, when everything was fine, and everything had calmed down, and you’re getting home, then you start to “what if?” What if something like that will happen to me? How would I react and would I be able to handle it and I think then it just became something I was obsessed with because you want to say to yourself “Okay I can handle it, I will handle it perfectly, I would really be the perfect mother who could handle everything” but I don’t know if that’s true. You don’t know because if you’re in new situation that you’ve never been in before, you can’t really say “I will handle it” because it’s like… the normal reality is not the same anymore, it’s got totally different rules. But at the same time I’m not the same person as Erika in the film at all. I don’t live this perfect life, I don’t have an obsession [with] perfection. Oh my god, it’s so dirty and chaotic in my home so it’s not the same at all. But it’s just a little piece of me.
So how does she come to terms with her reality? In the end she hops in the taxi…
You don’t know how it’s gonna end. I don’t think the couple will come together again. I don’t think they will be a family. I think they will be worse. Because I don’t think they love each anymore. But I think she will try to take care of her kid, but that’s also, if you have a kid that’s sick that will never get good again it’s a whole new life. So I think her life will never be the same, it will change forever, it’s another story. But Erika goes through three crises, in a way: she has this identity crisis, like, “Okay who am I? If I’m the perfect woman and now this happening to me, who am I?” She doesn’t know who she is at all, she doesn’t have any map inside… And number two she has this physical shock that you don’t talk so much about but we did a lot of research, me and Alicia, and talked about women who work with mothers who can’t deal with their kids. Even if their kids are alright they could still have this very problematic birth; if you have a very problematic birth it could be a trauma for the mother; if you have this physical trauma that is something you can’t help, your body has to heal, and you have to heal your soul in a deeper way. And then the third thing that starts when the film is over is the sadness, I mean the sorrow of having a child that will… and try to live with that. That’s what she’s running from. That’s what starts when she gets back to her kid. It’s the beginning of meeting reality and meeting the real sorrow. I think that’s the beginning of the crying. Like, really being there and facing the truth.
Is there a similar way that you can lay out what Katarina goes through in Pure?
[They’re] different journeys. I think Erika’s journey is, in a way, to be a closed person, having a control [and then] lose control… [It’s about] how you have to accept life, in a way. It’s another journey. Katarina’s journey is going almost the opposite way, like being very very open, then closing yourself and [trying] very hard to survive. So it’s a film of survival. In a way she’s a psychopath. I mean, Katarina. The only one who did something really weird, really illegal, in the film is Katarina. She’s harder than the conductor. If she can manage to work in this house knowing that she killed [him]… I mean, that’s fucking… That’s a psychopath! She’s very beautiful and very pure, but she’s still a psychopath.
All your characters are complex in that way.
I like that, I think every character should be complex. They should have both sides, and you don’t know really where to put them. And that’s how life is, in a way. It’s like myself.
So these questions of identity and mental health are on a lot of people’s minds these days. Why do you think that is?
Because I think that the more that you know about the world and yourself you get more and more complicated. I mean, if you have like a religion and then it’s like okay you have map of how to behave and how to be a good person, but now we don’t have … you know, most people don’t have that anymore in western society. I think maybe before the 50s or 60s religion was the answer for things and [now] we don’t have any religion at all. And then we thought that freedom would be the answer to things, just to be free from religion and rules and things, and then in freedom, oh my god, it’s very complicated. It’s like it’s something in the human brain that you really want something to follow. Like, you can’t really be responsible for your own freedom because otherwise you’d just collapse. I don’t know. You have to be very, very strong to take care of your own freedom. And I don’t think that [all] people have this strength.
Interview by Mitch Elliott.