Isabelle Huppert is the heart of the film even though her character is dead, partly because she’s who everyone is concerned about and partly because she’s so strong when she’s on screen. That wonderful long close-up of her face after she talks about how alienated she feels, never quite belonging either when she’s working abroad or when she’s back home with her family—was that in the script from the start or did it just grow out of working with her?
There was such a moment in the script, but originally it appeared somewhere else. I think the close-up is purely cinematic. When people say the close-up is made for television, I think, no, no, you can’t have a cinematic close-up on TV. You can’t watch Persona by Bergman on TV and get the same effect as on the big screen, because you see into the eye of Liv Ullman differently. That way to perceive a close, intimate, sometimes brutally intimate view of humans is very cinematic. I think in film history there are very few faces as interesting as Isabelle Huppert’s. Personally, I adore her. She can do stuff that’s quite remarkable, sort of open yet secretive, very mysterious. She’s a very kind, generous, smart person in real life, yet in front of the camera she retains some kind of secrecy, and I think that’s part of the seductive quality about her as an actor. I want to say something about her, and I haven’t said this other than in a Q&A where there was almost no one present. I was asked about her absence and I said she’s a pivotal ghost. [laughs] I think it’s true. She’s kind of there and not there, but she’s like the essence.
And even when her character was still alive, you felt like she was there, but not quite there. Which was a problem for her too.
You’ve co-written all your films with Eskil Vogt, and you’re working with him on more scripts. Can you talk a little about how you two work together, and on this film in particular? And why do you think that relationship works so well for you?
We’re old friends. Our biggest challenge these days in our work relationship is that we end up procrastinating and talking about movies rather than doing the work, because we love movies. It’s almost therapeutic. We can talk very freely about our lives. Yet we can also talk about our movies: “It’d be more filmic if we…” to sort of trump the other’s idea. “Nah! What are you talking about?” [laughs] Yeah, we’re movie nerds.
So once you’ve decided what you want to write about, how do you do the actual writing?
We sit in the room and we come up with the structure, a lot of the content and themes. In the past we both wrote, but Eskil writes much better than I do. So what we do now is that I leave him alone for a few days and then I come back and I read and I edit. We do a color system where we do corrections with a new color every time, and finally it looks like, I don’t know, a strange chaos, and then we make it all black text again when we agree.
What films have you seen and liked lately?
Tangerine. It was shot on a cellphone and it’s beautiful, precise. Did you see Girlhood? I thought it was beautiful too. I think Youth by Paolo Sorrentino was great, very generous. Dheepan, the Palme d’Or winner, is poignant [for how it depicts the] feeling of certain suburban areas of European cities at the moment.
And it mixes different modes of filmmaking together in an interesting way, which you like to do. It even turns into a revenge film at the end.
Yeah, I responded [to that]. I went through a period where I was watching a lot of revenge movies: Rolling Thunder and Man on Fire, you know, films I really adore [because of] my sort of left-wing Scandinavian upbringing, a very politicized childhood where I was always hearing about doing the right moral thing. It’s kind of beautiful to watch revenge movies, because they deal with human emotions that I’m not allowing myself, to a big degree, to ascribe to or accept. So it’s kind of great that Dheepan took some of that and put it into a moral context.
Is it just a coincidence that Isabelle Huppert’s character is named Isabelle?
It’s not, really. It kind of happened that we’d written her with an English name. When we were redrafting, we knew Isabelle was going to do it. It just sort of felt right, so we asked her and she agreed to it.
Did you change anything else about the character after she was cast?
Yeah, I did. I was fortunate enough to have rehearsal time, which isn’t really rehearsal in the classic sense. I don’t read through the script, for example. We do bits and pieces [with the actors] and get to know each other. We do maybe some scenes that we find challenging, and I film it all, and then I go back with Eskil and do a final redraft. I do this with all my movies. I want the actors to wear the dialogue personally. And it gets better and better. The actors are smart, and they can reveal bad things we’ve done.
So all the actors shape their parts to some degree?
A little bit. The text isn’t that different in the end. But maybe we drop a line that we don’t need, because they find a way of insinuating it so it gets sifted down, which is good, you know? More focused. That kind of thing.
This is your first film set in the States and performed in English. What led to that decision? Was it partly wanting to reach a broader audience?
Wanting these actors was part of the motivation. I wanted to work with a great international cast. I see a lot of handheld indie films being made in Norway and in America, a lot character-driven stuff shot in one room. I wanted to do something broader, with F/X, something that takes place in different parts of the world, with interior-world dreamscapes. I wanted to do something with a larger canvas, a grand story with great performances, kind of what I imagine cinema can do. We put together the finances in such a way that we could get good actors and not have to fish for the biggest star of the day in order to do the movie, so we could have David Straitharn and Amy Ryan. And find the wonderful Devin Druid to play Conrad, instead of thinking you have to find a 25-year-old actor with a squeaky voice. The real deal, all the way. Another part of the motivation was that only five million people speak my native language. My previous films, even though they’ve been fairly well distributed, are foreign-language. An English-language film can go further.