Nordisk Film and TV Fund Interviews Bent Hamer

Bent Hamer’s latest film 1001 Grams is opening today in Norway just after its world premiere in Toronto and before heading off to London, Chicago, Tokyo, Lübeck and L.A. The celebrated Norwegian writer/director/producer took the time to speak to us about his new playful drama about life and love that will carry Norway’s colours at this year’s Oscars race.
Bent Hamer

What was the starting point for this film? I read in an interview that you tend to draw inspiration from your own experience or dreams for your films…
Bent Hamer: It started with a report that I heard on the radio about the meter and the kilogram and the Norwegian Metrology institute ‘Justervesenet’ that was trying to relocate. But you never really know how an idea develops in your mind. It’s often a way to react unconsciously to a simple subject, a feeling or sense of its representation of much more and that doesn’t have to be immediate.

You make us enter in this totally unknown yet fascinating scientific world of measurement. How much research did you do and did you actually film in the real Norwegian and French institutes of metrology?
BH: After the radio programme that stuck in my mind, I read a newspaper article following the head of the mass department at Justervesenet who had to transport the Norwegian kilo to Paris’ Bureau International des Poids et Mesures (BIPM) in order to calibrate it against the international prototype there. The struggle getting the kilogram through the French customs made an impression on me.

Then a few years later, I met by chance the architect who built the new Justervesenet, Kristin Jarmund and she invited me for a guided tour in ‘her’ house. Eventually we shot several scenes there. We also worked hard with my French co-producer Marianne Slot to build trust and get the authorisation to shoot at Paris’ BIPM. So yes, most of the film was shot on real locations.

Would you say that the film is concept-driven, like Kitchen Stories, with a very focused linear plot where you see the main character of Marie (Ane Dahl Torp) change from an icy anti-social scientist who travels from Norway to France and breaks up when she finds the meaning of life and love?
BH: Kitchen Stories was based on a single focused situation in a closed room, whereas1001 Grams is based on movement by a closed mind. But yes, you can say it’s a very well planned and “strict” story and of course we thought of exploiting the opposites colder Norway and warmer Paris. It was also the first time I worked with an actress in the lead.

Ane was terrific. She can both develop her character within the single scenes and stick to the agreed concept, while always keeping the whole film in her mind. We were eager to stay with the image of her as a cold scientist with only her father as emotional anchor. It’s only at the very end that she says yes to love and yes to life.

In general how do you work with actors?
 I don’t have a method per se and I don’t like to rehearse too much. I write, direct, produce in order to control things, but at the same time I’m very aware of the fact that you don’t make a film on your own. Yes, the director is the one with the overall vision, but on the other hand you’re very dependent on people around you. It’s a matter of giving room and imposing your view and even taste at the same time. I actually plan things carefully, to create these rooms big enough for surprises.

Besides the metaphor of the weight or kilogram carried around by Marie and the weight of life, you have obviously enjoyed playing with this concept by sprinkling sayings throughout the film such as ‘sooner or later your own life will end up upon the scale’, or ‘life’s heaviest burden is to have nothing to carry’. Are these kind of warning bells to Marie, yourself and the audience at the same time?
Yes it is a reflexion on life, but it’s more about asking questions than giving answers. If you lift up the subject to a more philosophical level, you can ask yourself if a poem is more exact than a kilogram.

And as always in your film, there are great touches of humour to discuss ‘heavy’ existential matters…
BH: Often people try to present my films as comedies, but I’ve never made a comedy in my life. I just feel it would be very difficult for me to present my view of life without humour. How could one human being tell something about other human beings without that kind of versatile tool?

Just like Roy Andersson with whom you share a particular care in settings and colours, offbeat humour and reflection on existence, you also produce your own films. You don’t mind spending perhaps more time financing the film than actually making it?
BH: I always work that way. At the very beginning you have an idea and by all means you want to protect your ‘baby’. Directing is a way of being, but I enjoy producing as well. I’m not the kind of guy who wakes up in the morning and want to direct a new film or a scene. I keep up my enthusiasm by doing the’ farming ‘and ‘harvesting’ duties at the same time.

Tell us about your coproduction partners. Pandora in Germany has backed many of your films. Do they systematically come on board your projects? What about Marianne Slot and Les Films du losange, how did they come on board?
 I often speak to the same partners. We work very openly and we are friends. I admire Pandora’s work as arthouse producers and distributors. Marianne Slot is also a long-time friend. She worked on my first film Eggs and co-produced my second filmWater Easy Reach. As for Les Films du Losange, we also have a long time relationship. They released Kitchen Stories and Water Easy Reach.

You are among Norway’s greatest film exports. Is it easier for you today to finance your film?
BH: It’s still a battle each time. Today I have a career behind me and films for financiers and distributors to refer to. They know my style and that I deliver. But independent distributors take big chances on arthouse films. They are very careful with what they acquire.

What do you feel should be done to sustain the current success of Norwegian film and TV drama both domestically and internationally?
BH: We are a small country and we make around 20 films each year which is good. Some directors make major genre films abroad. Again, that proves that they can deliver as well as other directors from bigger production countries with a longer history of filmmaking. What is important is for creators to take some chances on the script. Then you have to decide what your goal is, to reach the maximum audience or not. Film is not just entertainment. It’s also a boutique art form and at the end, nobody knows which film will succeed at the box office.

What’s next for you?
BH: I’m working on a few things. It’s too early to say.

Would you be interested to work in television that gives more space for character development?
BH: Why not. I really enjoy watching TV dramas, and there are some great shows in particular coming out of the US. If something comes up, I will consider it. I am totally open, and I am good at saying no. I have worked abroad several times and I like it. When I shot Factotum it was a pleasure to work in the US. There are great actors, there, but I also admire British actors a lot.

Emma Vestrheim

Emma Vestrheim is the editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia. Originally from Australia, she is now based in Bergen, Norway, and attends major Nordic film festivals to conduct interviews and review new films.