From Press Photography to Film Direction: The Work of Erik Poppe

Erik Poppe was born in 1960 in Oslo and he grew up in Norway and Portugal. Poppe started his career as a photographer for the news agency Reuters and the Norwegian newspaper ‘Verdens Gang’, covering domestic news as well as international conflicts. He was awarded for his work by the Norwegian Press Association and World Press Photo. Poppe’s experiences as a conflict photographer around the world didn’t become a main theme in his filmmaking until quite recently in his latest feature, A Thousand Times Good Night (2013). In 1987 he decided to study Cinematography at the Dramatiska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden, from which he graduated in 1991.

He has directed music videos, short and documentary films and also had great success as a cinematographer for commercials. What’s more, Poppe worked as Director of Photography in several features during the period 1991 – 2003, including Bent Hammer’s Eggs (1994), for which he received The Kodak Award at the Moscow International Film Festival. He has won several awards at the Cannes Advertising Film Festival, and in the Epica, Eurobest and Clio competitions. Poppe was named Cinematographer of the year in Norway, in 1995 and that is also the year when he announced that he would no longer work as Director of Photography.

Three years later, in 1998, Schpaaa (Bunch of Five) marked the beginning of Poppe’s career as a feature-film director. The film is about a gang of young teenagers in Oslo, who set out to do a job for a group of drug-dealers. 15-year-old Emir is from Yugoslavia. He is quiet, shy and often hits other people in the head, which is exactly what his father used to do to him when he was little and which left him with a slight brain defect. Jonas, 14, is the most sensible of the group, the one who probably doesn’t really belong there. Emir and Jonas are friends and whether this will save them when it all goes south is quite unclear until the end. ‘Schpaaa’ is a word brought to Norway by foreigners, probably by Pakistani youngsters. It has since been used by teenagers to describe something good, fine or cool, something like an opportunity to make money quickly, through ‘simple’ and ‘harmless’ criminal activity. Poppe’s first feature not only is a link between his former job as photojournalist and his current career as a film director, it also has the appearance of one. The film is obviously fiction but had the plot been a little more believable it would have been close to street documentary. It is not so much the story or even the script that constructs such an image, but the camera-work itself, the setting and the angles. There is, for example, a shot of Jonas arguing with Emir that instantly makes the audience an observer that views the story from a distance in such a way that resembles how they would watch the news on TV. The performances are really good even though most of the kids are probably not professionals. Written by Hans Peter Blad and Poppe himself, the script is good but the narration and the pacing would perhaps work better if they were faster and more compact. In any case, Schpaaa is a strong debut feature and it sets the ground for Poppe’s departure towards a more clear artistic approach, vision and filming style. It is also the first part of Poppe’s ‘Oslo Trilogy’, followed by Hawaii, Oslo(2004) and Troubled Water (2008). In every film of the trilogy the director explores the themes of fate and predestination against actions and choices in life, as well as friendship, devotion and generally human relationships.

Particular gravity is given to these subjects in Hawaii, Oslo, which has been compared to Crash, Short Cuts and Magnolia, not as an average wanna-be but as a remarkable, fresh effort in the sub-genre the titles above represent. Vidar (Trond Espen Seim) works in an asylum and he has the ability to predict near-future situations, since he dreams about them before they happen. That is more a curse than a gift in Vidar’s life, especially because his efforts to prevent incidents so far have been in vain. This time he has dreamt that his friend Leon (Jan Gunnar Røise), an inmate of the asylum, is going to be in an accident. While Vidar tries to figure out a way to intervene in the course of events, a set of interconnected stories unfolds and affects one another. Leon’s childhood sweetheart is on her way to him, keeping a promise they made to each other many years back. A couple is desperately looking for money in order for their sick newborn to have an expensive operation abroad. A drug-addict reunites with her two children and an ambulance driver plays his own important part, while Leon’s brother gets his leave out of prison, only to cause additional trouble. The screenplay is by Harald Rosenløw-Eeg with whom Poppe will work again in his following films. The writing is concise and paired with sublime editing by Einar Egeland they produce an excellent narrative, tense and fast-paced but very smooth, with no forced climaxes, just naturally built interest. The Director of Photography, Lenser Ulf Brantås, who has also worked in Lukas Moodysson’s first three features, has created a gloomy and dreamlike environment in which the characters gradually come closer to each other. Hawaii, Oslo can be described as a set of stories that clash together and become one, but it might be more suitable to view it as one story that falls apart like a piece of broken glass. Therefore, the question arises of whether the glass can be glued back to its original shape or it will inevitably take a new form.

This metaphor also applies to Poppe’s next feature, the last of the Oslo Trilogy, Troubled Water (Norwegian title: De Usynlige – The Invisibles). This time what’s broken is a young boy’s future and a young mother’s life. Jan (Pål Sverre Hagen) and his friend take a woman’s child when she gets in a store and leaves the stroller briefly unattended. A series of unfortunate events and bad judgment on their behalf turns what might have been a teenage prank into a child’s death, a long sentence for the boys, mourning and unanswered questions for the mother, Agnes (Trine Dyrholm). Years later, when Jan is released, he manages to get a job as an organist in the local church. In fact, the quality of the music and its use throughout the movie is noteworthy. As Poppe himself has stated, “The organ music is in a sense one of the main characters in Troubled Water.Possessing a distinct personality and playing a unique role, the music interacts with the drama and influences the other characters. Working on the script brought me to Iver Kleive. His experience in church music and the influence of jazz was a perfect match for the characters. Recording Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ in Bergen Cathedral left a powerful and lasting impression on me.”2 It should be pointed out here, that music also played a significant role in Hawaii, Oslo, while both movies start in a similar way; by presenting a key event around which the story revolves, artistically shot and with a distinct soundtrack in the background. Regardless of the fact that Jan’s character is quiet and restrained,Troubled Water is another case of great writing, the second collaboration between Poppe and Rosenløw-Eeg. “From the Old Testament we remember that water gives life” preaches the priest, in clear contrast to the facts that initially take place in the film.

Poppe has experienced a similar tragic event himself, since his little nephew was run over by a drunk driver. He spent no less than three years going through the script and preparing the movie, during which he visited convicts with long sentences and parents who had lost a child. He points out the opening scene of the film, a shot of flowing water rotated 90 degrees, so that it gives the impression of flowing upwards. “Water expresses both the time that passed and also a new chance, as it does in the Bible, it expresses a sort of rebirth.”3, Poppe explains. Troubled Water won both the Golden Starfish for Best Narrative Feature and the Audience Awards in the Hamptons IFF in 2008.

Five years later, in 2013, his latest film A Thousand Times Goodnight is a double first-time for the director. It is his first English-language film as well as the one that illustrates his story. Poppe had worked as a photographer in war-zones abroad until the late 80s but also later on, between his feature films, although he would then go as a filmmaker and not as a photo-reporter. However, he admits that he wasn’t interested in making a film about those experiences, because he hadn’t found 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 dramatize it. The hard thing is not to be able to survive – in most of the areas that is not hard. 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.”4 A Thousand Times Good Night is to a large degree autobiographical, except the fact that the main character, played by Juliette Binoche, is a woman. In an interview, Poppe explains why he chose to reverse the roles of the husband and the wife: “The talks with family, the separations, I lived through all of them. Some of the sentences in the dialogue were uttered by my own children. I preferred for the main character to be a woman because I think this type of dilemma is more obvious when a woman faces it.”5 In a very interesting comment Poppe also breaks down his former profession saying that he never felt like a “war-photographer”: “…I rather felt like a witness, a narrator in a privileged situation, because I addressed an audience who wanted to be informed. I took photos, but I also wrote. Now I make films, and, just like I used to, what interests me is to progress, dare to ask uneasy questions, without trying to be politically correct.”5

He underlines that he doesn’t like retrospectives for his films and that he would refuse to watch his movies a second time, while he feels the same way for the photographs he has taken. “I always wanted them to shock the readers in the magazines in which they were published, for them to raise awareness. The public at exhibitions is prepared, the surprise effect is not the same. To refuse exhibitions is also about respecting the people in the photos. It is a matter of decency.”5, he adds. It is very interesting that his movies, particularly Hawaii, Osloand Troubled Water, do indeed have a very intense effect the first time around, that can’t be repeated on subsequent viewings. That doesn’t imply an ordinary plot or one-time suspense but rather an emotional circle the viewer goes through, which is completed as soon as the film ends and can hardly be achieved again, at least not in the same way.

Apart from the concept of A Thousand Times Good Night, Poppe’s storytelling and artistic skills are visible once again. He teams up with the same screenwriter for the third time to produce sharp and poignant lines, which match the emotional complexity of the characters and the excellent performances of the actors. Both Binoche, who plays Rebecca, photographer and mother of two, as well as Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who plays her husband Marcus, give a lesson of fine acting and are essential to the story’s realism and credibility. It is slightly slower in pace yet it neither lacks rhythm, nor it gets flat in the middle.

In all of Poppe’s projects, the score, the editing and the cinematography are substantial and also closely connected with each other and with the story. For instance, the moving image of a kaleidoscope interrupts the action in Hawaii, Oslo, while a woman is floating underwater in slow-motion both in Troubled Water and A Thousand Times Good Night. In the latter, wide-angle landscape shots and various close-ups fill in the silence, becoming an entity together with the characters, just like music expressed Jan’s psychology in Troubled Water.

As far as production is concerned, so far Poppe has made movies mainly in Scandinavia. In an interview he reveals that the opportunity for him to work in Hollywood has been there for a few years now: “I’ve been getting offers and I’ve been looking into some of them. But bearing in mind what I’d be sacrificing, as I currently have the freedom of telling stories I want, in the way I want.”6 The director seems to be thankful for the artistic freedom he has had so far and not willing to turn to the U.S. unless that freedom is provided.

Having completed a trilogy and a very personal feature, Poppe is currently trying a different path, as he is about to tell a true story about the King of Norway and the hours before the Germans attacked Norway in World War II. The story will span in three days during which the King had to make pivotal decisions. It will be interesting to see how Poppe will deal with period filmmaking and with the usual challenges of depiction of historic events. He will probably focus on characters and emotions, a field which he can undoubtedly handle very well. We only have to wait until more information comes out. Tre døgn i april (Three days in April) is to be released in Norway in 2016.

Read more articles by Cleo:

Cleo lives in Thessaloniki, Greece. She’s studying to become an electrical engineer, but what she actually does it watch and discuss films as much as possible, hoping to someday make her own. She has a soft spot for all things art, travelling, Nordic languages and English accents.


1. Imdb.com: Filmography and biography of Erik Poppe

2. 2l.no: Information on the Official Soundtrack of Troubled Water

3. Filmfestival.be: Erik Poppe, interview for Gent IFF, 16-08-2009

4. http://www.filmuforia.co.uk: Erik Poppe, interview with Matthew Turner, 01-05-2014

5. http://cineuropa.org: Erik Poppe, interview with Maud Forsgren, 14-10-2013

6. http://www.heyuguys.com: Erik Poppe, interview with Stefan Pape, 01-05-2014

CategoriesFeatures Issue 8

Cleo lives in Thessaloniki, Greece. She’s studying to become an electrical engineer but what she actually does is watch and discuss films as much as possible, hoping to someday make her own. She has a soft spot for all things art, travelling, Nordic languages and english accents.